If you’d been asked at the beginning of the year whose new novel would feature ogres, pixies and a she-dragon called Querig, I suspect you might have taken a while to guess that the answer was Kazuo Ishiguro. Admittedly, since his career-establishing 1980s triumphs with An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro has been at some pains to distance himself from poignant, perfectly-wrought narratives by uptight self-deceivers who find themselves on the wrong side of history.
There was, for example, the long, dream-like and famously punishing The Unconsoled. More rewardingly, Never Let Me Go — published ten years ago — took place in an alternative Nineties world in which clones were created to act as organ donors. Even so, it’s hard not to feel a degree of sympathy with his clearly rather baffled American publisher, who announced last year that Ishiguro’s forthcoming novel was ‘something of a departure’, which ‘took us all by surprise’.
The main characters are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple in post-Arthurian Britain who set off from their home village to visit their son — if they can find him and, indeed, remember who he is. The reason for their confusion is that the country is covered with a ‘mist of forgetfulness’, which has rendered memories of even the most recent events mysteriously out of reach.
On the long walk to wherever they’re going, the couple meet an impressively complete range of folkloric types: among them elderly hags, monks (wise and villainous), knights (including an ageing Sir Gawain) and all manner of monsters. Yet, as has often been pointed out, Ishiguro’s novels are rarely what they seem: Never Let Me Go, for instance, is no more ‘about’ cloning than The Remains of the Day is ‘about’ being a mid-20th-century butler. And here, too, he definitely has his sights set on something more than just a kind of fifth-century road movie. Instead, he both revisits and develops one of his longstanding themes: that, while the dangers of self-deception are obvious enough, self-knowledge is not necessarily all that desirable either.
Less than halfway through, Axl and Beatrice learn that the mist of forgetfulness is being caused by that she-dragon I mentioned. This makes them particularly keen to see her killed — not merely so they can remember their son, but also recover the memories of what seems to have been a long and happy marriage. But what happens if the memories aren’t as happy as they imagine?
In this novel, though, the theme also takes on a wider social dimension. The Buried Giant is set at a time when Saxons and Britons are living in relative harmony. Yet might such harmony only be possible because the Saxons have forgotten how violently they were treated by Arthur’s Britons? And once they remember, won’t all the old animosities re-emerge? (Or, in Milan Kundera’s pithy formulation, ‘Forgetting: absolute injustice and absolute solace at the same time.’)
What Ishiguro has called ‘societal memory’ is an idea with almost limitless resonance — although the main example he used when talking as long ago as 2008 about this novel as a work-in-progress was France choosing to remember itself as nation of resistance fighters after the second world war. But, he went on, rather than getting entangled in anything too well-known, ‘I figured that the further you go back in time, the more likely the story would be read metaphorically.’
Which brings us to the perhaps the thorniest question about The Buried Giant. In theory, it reads exactly the way Ishiguro hoped it would seven years ago — as yet another of his miraculous fusions of metaphor and narrative. In practice, the final page can sometimes feel pretty far away. The problem certainly isn’t that he fails to take the narrative element seriously enough, but rather the opposite: that it’s so thoroughly imagined, so packed with details (not all of them arresting) as occasionally to approach the longueurs of The Unconsoled.
As ever, Ishiguro has solid technical reasons for using his familiar, resolutely unexuberant prose — in this case, to emphasise how ordinary the novel’s strange world seems to the people living in it — and again there’s no denying how brilliantly he does what he sets out to. Nonetheless, after a couple of hundred pages of painstaking evocations (with dialogue to match) of mythical fifth-century landscapes, politics, customs and all the other things the book isn’t really about, even the most high-minded of readers might find their admiration tempered with more than a twinge of impatience.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16 Tel: 08430 600033
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10