Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s eagerly awaited seventh novel – 10 years in the writing – is set in England sometime around the Sixth Century AD. It’s a dark time, the country is mostly “miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland” – a far cry from the well -maintained roads of prior Roman rule. Long abandoned villas, now falling into rack and ruin dot the landscape as proof of a more civilized past. The nation’s most recent history is that of the celebrated King Arthur, a man who won a “great peace” across the land, the legacy of which is that the once warring Saxons and Britons now live side-by-side, their “barbarous past” forgotten.
Such forgetfulness is far from figurative, however; this land is beset by a shared amnesia, “Like a sickness come over all of us”, muses Beatrice, an elderly Briton who lives with her husband Axl in a warren-like community “dug deep into the hillside”. The couple describe their affliction as a “mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes”, and equally opaque. Guessing at some “unnamed loss”, the couple deduce that they must have once had a son, and thus set out to find him.
In the course of their journey they encounter three other travellers whose fates become entwined with theirs. There’s Edwin, a young Saxon boy bitten by a dragon – yes, here be dragons, and ogres, and pixies too, not to mention all manner of magical enchantments. The fang marks on his chest are enough to see him banished from his settlement after they sent the villagers into a frenzy of superstitious bloodlust. Then there’s Wistan, a Beowulf-like Saxon warrior who hails from the fenlands of the east. He’s under orders from his king to slay the evil she-dragon Querig, whose enchanted breath, we eventually learn, is the source of the forgetfulness that hangs so heavily over the people of this land. And finally, straight out of Arthurian legend, is Sir Gawain, nephew and youngest of the king’s knights, strong of heart even though he’s now a “whiskery old fool”.
Myth and memory
Mythical creatures, magic and the history of the Saxons’ invasion of Britain aside, the issues Ishiguro examines have their origins in the aftermath of more recent conflicts: from post-World War Two Japan, Vichy France andpost-apartheid South Africa, to the genocides of Rwanda and Yugoslavia. The novel asks, how do we make peace with a past that contains massive collective trauma? How can such trauma be memorialized and acknowledged without breeding vengeance? How are the sins of the fathers not revisited on their sons? Faced with the prospect of the mist being lifted and their memories returned to them, Beatrice is warned that the good will be accompanied by the bad. Although she’s keen to remember the life she and Axl have shared together, “whatever its shape, for it’s been a thing dear to us”, there’s not just one couple’s memories to consider; once past atrocities are remembered by everyone how can peace be upheld? The question of whether it’s better to “uncover what’s been hidden and face the past”, or draw a veil over it and move on, looms uneasily over the text.
This preoccupation with the machinations of memory, guilt and denial is familiar ground for Ishiguro, but in previous works he focused primarily on individual characters looking back over their lives. In A Pale View of the Hills, a middle-aged Japanese woman living in England takes stock of what led her daughter to suicide; An Artist of the Floating World tells the story of an elderly man in Japan taking responsibility for the actions of his past; and the narrator of The Remains of the Daymust also come to terms with the ‘whys and wherefores’ of the decisions he’s made. The Buried Giant, however, locates individuals – namely Axl and Beatrice – within their collective society. Such a significant broadening of scope, from a writer focused on crafting the minutiae of an individual life and world, could go some way toward explaining why this novel took Ishiguro so long to compose.
This foray into fantasy may appear something of an unexpected direction for Ishiguro – though the dystopian world of Never Let Me Go indicates some sympathy with sci-fi – but all great speculative fiction is never truly about the past or present of its narrative. Rather, it serves to illuminate the present of the reader. While The Buried Giant may lack the narrative economy of much of its author’s previous work, it remains a haunting, melancholic examination of accountability, at the heart of which nestles a moving story of marital devotion.
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