(Some thoughts after reading The Buried Giant by Kazuo ishiguro.)
The final reckoning we make is with our memories. One we have navigated every test life has given us, and all that lies on our horizon is eternity, at this point we must square with what we have wrought in our years. This is the scythe that comes to cut us down when all else in life is done.
The tale of that judgment is what Ishiguro gives us. It is the story of that scythe, a lifetime in the making, arcing through those deeds long past to see if it can strike us down.
Ishiguro always leaves us with this final cut. There is no hard-won triumph, no ultimate revelation that transcends the blade that has been traveling through these pages; there is at best a conciliation, a resigned acceptance of the fact that memory will only at last allow a peace upon its terms. This blade has been ever-sharpening, and now here it is, come to meet you.
I like Ishiguro’s Kathy the best. Kathy and death are intimates from too young an age. She has been brought up looking it in the eye. There is nothing of the careful elisions and willful ignorance that Ishiguro often gives as protection to his narrators. She is in the fraught position of knowing that the memories she makes can only harm her, and yet she still cherishes the making of them. As a young woman watching that scythe arc toward her, she will not stop loving these memories. This is the humanity her captors so vainly seek, this self-defeating wish to grab on to what seeps through our fingers, to revisit what is long since done. Ishiguro leaves her there in a most solemn location: a lonely, trash-strewn highway, no place at all to sense two tears come out your eyes and know that this is the most you will ever feel of a life you would not be parted with. Kathy knows this. She faces this fact with courage, these two tears enough to meet that coming scythe. And so she is the best.
As a little girl Kathy sings the refrain from a song: never let me go. She imagines it is about a mother who wishes to never be parted with her baby. As she sings, she is observed by her teacher, who interprets the song quite differently. When the teacher watches Kathy, she sees “a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go.” The world this teacher speaks of is ours, a manner of existence she knows will soon be invalidated by new cures, new technologies to let us block that final scythe.
Ishiguro’s elderly Beatrice speaks a very similar refrain as Kathy’s to her elderly husband, Axl. Don’t forget about me, she says again and again throughout her book, don’t let us be parted. There is a sorcery afoot that has dulled their memories. They have lost the vicissitudes and the pleasures of their companionship, and they no longer recall upon what events their love rests. They only know that they are man and wife, but they cannot recall the years of life together that have made it so. Beatrice fears their parting because of the possibility they will not come back together before they forget whom the other was. They only know they cannot let it go.
They cannot, but they must. The endings Ishiguro writes for Kathy, Axl, and Beatrice are his most haunting, because they are the ends that come upon us with that final scythe. Their twisting narratives are like long preparations for the tale’s elegy, where Ishiguro reaffirms what we have known all along: death will have its say. And there is no doubt what will be said, because we are all participants in this humanity together, and we know the rules of this game. In the end we will let go.
At times we are wont to believe that if you remember well enough, you can cheat death. There is a hope that lets us pass our days, never reckoning with that scythe before those final hours when there is nothing left to distract our minds. Like any of us, Ishiguro must too have that hope, but he also has been granted knowledge of those concluding encounters, and his novels are how he shares both with us. He is our writer of balancings, of the scales that will be evened, of the annihilation that must join up to every act of creation.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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