While there hasn’t been a lot by Kazuo Ishiguro reviewed on the blog thus far, he’s actually one of my favourite English-language writers, and I’ve read all of his works several times (I just have to acquire one of his books to complete my personal collection). I was very happy, then, to receive an unexpected parcel a few weeks ago, a lovely ARC of his latest novel, courtesy of the Australian distributors Allen & Unwin. Ten years in the making, it’s a novel many people have been waiting for; however, it might be just a little different to what they were expecting.
The Buried Giant is set in England during the Dark Ages – the Romans have long gone, and there is a time of relative peace after bloody battles between the Briton and Saxon peoples. In a peaceful hillside village, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, are spending their twilight years helping out as best they can, living on the edge of the small community. One day, however, they decide that there’s something they must do before time runs out:
“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay.”
“A journey, princess? What sort of journey?”
“A journey to our son’s village. It’s not far, husband, we know that. Even with our slow steps, it’s a few days’ walk at most, a little way east beyond the Great Plain. And the spring will soon be upon us.”
p.19 (Faber & Faber, 2015)
A short time later, the couple pack some supplies and set off on their journey, one which both know might be their last.
However, the trip isn’t quite as straight-forward as you’d imagine. These are different times, and with navigation a matter of experience, luck and hope, finding their way is no easy task. Even if they find the right path, there are dangers on all sides, from hostile natives, wild animals and slightly more supernatural foes. In addition, there’s the small matter of not really knowing where they’re going… You see, in these dark times, a mist has descended across the land, one which affects people’s memory of the past. The truth is that the couple have no real idea where their son left the village for – or why.
Delving into the past isn’t exactly new for Ishiguro, with some of his most successful novels (The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans) set many years ago, but it’s safe to say that The Buried Giant takes that just a little bit further. It’s a time of legend and superstition, and this allows the writer to introduce a mix of gritty realism and myth, his characters fearing both the effects of a nasty scratch in an age of poor health care and the ogres who are known to roam the countryside. The novel swings between historical fiction and fantasy, making for an intriguing read.
Ishiguro is also well known for his unreliable narrators, and while this one slips in and out of the story, he’s an important aspect of the novel. He’s an avuncular, first-person story-teller, a compelling voice telling us of the dangers the elderly couple face, and the language used (here and throughout the novel) is reminiscent of the style found in old versions of Arthurian legends – nineteenth-century representations of older language, perhaps. Who is this narrator? Well, you won’t find that out for a while, and even then we’re not exactly sure of his real identity.
But then, that’s true for more than just the narrator. Several of the main characters have a fascinating story to tell, or be told, if only they can remember it. Confounded by the magical mist which prevents memories from burdening the living, Beatrice and Axl don’t remember too much about their early years together, and as the novel progresses, it’s not just the reader that gains valuable insights into their character and history:
“Edwin appeared to comprehend the soldier’s wishes, if not his actual words, for he left the mare and came to join Wistan. As he did so, the soldier adjusted slightly the position of his horse. Axl, noticing this, understood immediately that the soldier was maintaining a particular angle and distance between himself and his charges that would give him the greatest advantage in the event of sudden conflict.” (p.122)
That’s quite an observation for a simple village farm helper – there’s obviously more to Mister Axl than meets the eye.
The bigger picture behind the memory issue is the question of whether it’s better to forget the past or confront it head on, and Ishiguro uses his allegorical setting to explore the question in detail. The first situation is that of Beatrice and Axl, a couple scared of having forgotten their shared history. They’re eager to recover their memories, but as the pictures begin to return, they realise that there are bound to be some unpleasant images emerging from the depths of the past. In their search for the truth, they might actually be driven apart.
However, there’s also a much wider issue involved, and that is one of societies forgetting history to better confront the challenges of the future. While the reader is desperate to know what’s spreading the mist, a far more important question is why it’s been created. There’s good reason for the national curse of forgetfulness, and it concerns the recent wars (and the scars they’ve left). As the Saxon warrior Wistan explains to Axl, when relating the behaviour of his race during a siege:
“In other words, Master Axl, it’s vengeance to be relished in advance by those not able to take it in its proper place. That’s why I say, sir, my Saxon cousins would have stood here to cheer and clap, and the more cruel the death, the more merry they would have been.” (p.155)
Axl is loath to accept the truth of these words, but the more he remembers, the more difficult it becomes to dispute Wistan’s logic. If the mist is finally dispersed, will the country be able to move on, or will the shadows of the past return to haunt it?
The Buried Giant is an enjoyable novel, thought-provoking and clever with a wonderful narratorial voice. It’s an interesting take on a little-known period of English history, putting a new spin on some very famous tales. There’s a risk in setting a modern novel in this period, and some critics might wonder what it adds to the novel, and why his themes had to be handled in this way – I suspect some will consider it unnecessary. However, with a central idea of uncertainty, the magical surrounds suit the story and its handling.
Unlike with some of the more obscure titles I look at, my little review is unlikely to sway most readers. Ishiguro is a big name, and I’m sure this novel will sell by the bucketload in any case. Nevertheless, I’m happy to add my seal of approval, and The Buried Giant will sit happily with the other Ishiguro works on my shelves. In fact, it might just be time to get around to buying A Pale View of Hills to complete the collection. Excuse me while I go and look for my credit card…