The general reaction to Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel seems to have been overwhelmingly one of bemusement. Ishiguro’s work has always appeared unpredictable. The quintessentially English The Remains of the Day (1989), for example, bore little relation in setting or subject matter to the futuristic Never Let Me Go (2005). And after ten years of waiting (ten years!), along comes The Buried Giant sounding for all the world from its title onwards like a children’s fable. What does the Booker prize-winning novelist think he is doing writing a book about dragons of all things? And ogres and pixies? What on earth is going on? Has the esteemed Mr Ishiguro spent too many hours watching Game of Thrones?
Initial bemusement, however, quickly gives way to some rather more thoughtful reflection. The Buried Giant, it transpires, is also a deeply English book but in a very different way to The Remains of the Day. If the latter was English in its restraint, its understatement and its rootedness in English social mores, then The Buried Giant is very English in its approach to, and understanding of, landscape, history and myth. Set in an indeterminate time between the reign of King Arthur and the triumph of the Saxons, this is a period rightly referred to as the Dark Ages, “dark” simply because we know very little about them. This is a period of history that time largely forgot - and forgetting and remembering is very much what this book is about.
Its chief protagonists are Axl and his wife Beatrice who live in a warren on the outer fringes of a village. Very early on we are explicitly made aware that this is a place where there is little memory: “in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.” No wonder, then, that when they decide to go on a journey (a quest?) to see their son, they have only the dimmest memory of who he is or where he now lives. The mist of forgetfulness is a physical presence as well as a metaphorical one.
The source of the mist is allegedly the dragon Querig but before they reach her lair there are many encounters and adventures. They are accompanied part of the way by a Saxon warrior and a boy who has been bitten by a dragon and consequently banished from his village; they come across Sir Gawain, now an old and rusty knight together with his ageing war horse Horace; they witness a violent conflict in a village, the slaying of an ogre and a duel. In a sense these are the standard fare of quest stories. But all the time little pieces of memory return to them, pieces of history and half memories of their own relationship. Often their versions are at odds with each other. At first they peaceably agree to differ, “If that’s how you’ve remembered it, Axl, let it be the way it was. With this mist upon us, any memory’s a precious thing and we’d best hold tight to it.” But as the journey continues and more memory returns, the divisions between them become more pronounced. If you cannot remember anything, then how do you know that your marriage has been a wonderful thing and your wife a faithful woman of peerless beauty?
At the heart of this concern with memory is a tough question. Is it really better to remember than to forget? Our instinctive response here is to say an unqualified “yes”. By studying history, we argue, we can understand better our mistakes, learn from them and avoid repeating them in the future. But is that really so? Do we actually learn from history or are we simply condemned to repeat it? Axl and Beatrice are a happy and contented couple before they start remembering a few darker details of their past. Is it the same for countries? If you are born in Nagasaki in 1954, as Ishiguro was, do you forever live with the memory of the atomic bomb or do you try to forget it and move on? When should you choose to forget? Many in Cambodia deplored the trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders as raking over a time best forgotten. Others saw it as an essential part of the grieving process. Is there a “correct” balance? How much of the current awful chaos in the Middle East is rooted in a too vivid recall of the past?
It will be evident by now that my initial bemusement that Ishiguro should choose to write a fable of dragons and ogres was short-lived. Not only did I very much enjoy reading the book, I also came to respect its depth and wisdom. Ishiguro writes beautifully as always and in The Buried Giant he has created a haunting fable not just of the dark ages but for all of time. So my advice is to forget any prejudices you might have about fantasy novels and just read it!