After a ten year absence which at times has felt almost as unbearable as the pregnant silences that characterise his texts, Kazuo Ishiguro has returned with his seventh novel, The Buried Giant. Set in post-Arthurian Britain, the book follows Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons, as they set off across country to visit their son, who may or may not exist, in a village that they may or may not know how to find. They encounter hostile villagers and treacherous monks, dragons and trolls, sprites and ferrymen, all in the company of the fellow travellers they meet along the way – Wistan, a brave but mysterious Saxon knight, Edwin, a young Saxon boy exiled from his village, and a decrepit Sir Gawain, creaking at the seams and faintly Pythonesque as he rides the countryside in full body armour. That Ishiguro has turned to the world of historical fantasy has horrified some critics. But really, this is a book about memory and forgetting, and about the melancholy of growing old together.
There is, in addition, a larger theme. Although a fragile peace prevails, at every turn there are hints of a troubled recent past, of genocide and ethnic cleansing, of horrific acts of war committed by the Britons upon the Saxons. How, wonders one character, “can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly?” Trouble is in the air, as Wistan hints at when he advises, “It’s justice and vengeance await…[a]nd they’ll soon hurry this way, for both are much delayed”. History might tell us that such vengeance would indeed soon be wrought but the lesson extends to modern times as well. Ishiguro has mentioned the context of the Balkans conflict of the 1990s, but even more recent parallels are sadly all too easy to draw.
A strange collective amnesia maintains the uneasy peace in the time of the narrative. Memory and forgetting are recurring themes in Ishiguro’s work, but here they are given a physical presence: a mist hangs over the land, conjured up by Merlin through the breath of the dragon Querig. The quest which Wistan and, indirectly, the other characters find themselves on is one of slaying the dragon and freeing the land from this fog of forgetfulness. Characters fret over whether such a freedom is desirable, whether it might be better not to remember. Still, this is an Arthurian fantasy; the dragon must be slain, what will be will be.
For England, this will mean bloody war and conquest; for Axl and Beatrice, something far more personal and moving. As the mist begins to lift, so their son’s fate becomes clearer: “How did we ever forget? Our son lives on an island…seen from a sheltered cove, and surely near us now”. To complete their own quest they must persuade the boatman to take them to the island together. In an earlier meeting with a different boatman they learned that “it requires an unusually strong bond of love” for husband and wife to be ferried to the island together. Throughout the novel, much attention is paid to the physical proximity between Axl and the clearly deteriorating Beatrice. “Are you still there, Axl” becomes a familiar refrain; “Still here, princess” the equally familiar retort. And yet, as they go, they fret over ill-remembered disagreements and indiscretions. Will their bond remain sufficiently strong?
If the measure of a novel is how long it remains in the mind, then The Buried Giant is a mighty work, for this is an easy book to put down but a very difficult one to let go. Ten years in the making, it may well be as long again before the mist begins to descend and the quietly devastating effect of the narrative begins to loosen its grip.