Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel is already heading bestseller lists, though its subject – a quest narrative set in fifth century Britain – must have surprised many of his faithful readers. This ‘literary’ novelist seems to have joined the ranks of fantasy writers, such as George R. R. Martin and J. R. R. Tolkien. Adam Mars-Jones has suggested that The Buried Giant, with its ogres and dragons, knights and monks, could be categorised as young adult fiction, and Ursula K. Le Guin has taken offence at Ishiguro’s comment that he fears the novel will be dismissed as ‘fantasy’. He has stepped into an area that is fraught with marketing assumptions.
As a popular fantasy novel, The Buried Giant leaves something to be desired. It moves at a slow pace and, for the most part, is told from the point of view of an old man whose memory is failing him. There are no grand battle scenes and any brief violent action, when it comes, occurs out of view, as if the author’s attention has turned away at the crucial moment. All Ishiguro’s care goes into the setting up of possible action – anticipating it so thoroughly that its occurrence becomes anticlimactic. One wonders what he is up to. It is, after all, ten years since he published Never Let Me Go (2005), so the sense of anticlimax may apply as much to readers’ expectations as to the narrative of the novel.
Yet Ishiguro does not write in the same genre twice. Looking back at his previous novels, it is apparent that only the first two, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), have any direct reference to his personal background; he was born in Japan after the war and moved to Britain as a small child. They gave us a sense of a Japanese aesthetic bound up with a studied care for the English language. Since then, he has offered us a historical British country house novel in The Remains of the Day (1989), a middle-European novel of surreal imagining in The Unconsoled (1995), a version of a detective novel set in Shanghai between the wars in When We Were Orphans (2000), and a dystopian fiction in Never Let Me Go.
These novels are all entertaining and successful in their way, with a good Merchant Ivory film emerging from The Remains of the Day (1993) and an interesting one from When We Were Orphans (2010). Ishiguro’s script for James Ivory’s film The White Countess (2005) also depicted the international set in pre-war Shanghai that dominates When We Were Orphans. It is difficult to begrudge Ishiguro his success as a writer of fiction that appeals to filmmakers and to readers across the world; I think this success can be put down to his interest in narrative and memory, common themes in his generically diverse body of work.
Clearly Ishiguro is an enthusiastic reader of other people’s writing. He embraces each new genre until he makes it his own. One of the pleasures of The Unconsoled, for example, is the way that characters who seem to belong in a Thomas Bernhard novel step forward to expatiate at comic length on their problems and obsessions. His narrator shares with the reader complete ignorance of what has gone before, and what is about to happen, reporting the words of each character as if they will offer some clue to the meaning of the circuitous plot. The novel becomes an exploration of our desire to connect the past and the future through narrative, as its hapless protagonist follows one character or another in an attempt to discover his own role in life. It creates a nightmare sense of necessary things left undone (your piano practice, your homework) that we all recognise, as its narrator wanders around a self-important middle-European town.
When We Were Orphans is narrated by a character who might have gone to school with Anthony Powell’s Widmerpool, or to Oxford with Evelyn Waugh’s Charles Ryder (Ishiguro uses this name for his protagonist in The Unconsoled). His English pomposity might well turn the reader away, until we realise that is the point – his authority as a famous detective is gradually stripped away, as the complexity of the crisis in Shanghai is revealed. He turns out to be as blind to the true state of affairs as he is lost for direction in the labyrinthine slums of Shanghai under attack from the Japanese. This recalls the way that, in The Remains of the Day, the narrator’s belief in a very English form of propriety appears increasingly delusional as the novel goes on, and finally collapses altogether. An awareness that the narrative the characters are inhabiting (and which we as readers experience alongside them) is withholding or excluding essential information creates a kind of dramatic irony; we may know, or suspect, that there is more to the story but, reliant on the narrators, we have no means of finding out the essential information that would allow us to make sense of what is happening. In Never Let Me Go, the setting in an imagined future leaves the reader without much in the way of contextual clues, as we share the narrator’s ignorance about the purpose of her education and sheltered life, and her obsession with finding some kind of parental past.
That Ishiguro’s narrators are unreliable, and sometimes wilfully ignorant, hints at his real obsessions. His characters cannot imagine the ends of their stories, and most of the time their grip on the past is faulty. Like Ishiguro’s readers, they are constantly trying to fathom what is happening – and what has happened. Like the writer, they are looking for the shape of the story. Research into memory tells us that narrative is a key to our ability to recall the past – we need to make stories, to understand a set of consequences, in order to remember. Ishiguro knows that stories are necessary to make our past meaningful, but he is also aware that they influence our decisions about the future. His characters often come to the wrong conclusions on the basis of stories they have wilfully preserved.
In The Buried Giant, a fog of forgetfulness has engulfed the people of Britain so that the characters are struggling to understand their fears and the moral logic of their world. They have no past, and the novel reaches for the connections that may create a narrative, both public and personal, for them. It is, in a sense, a novel about narrative possibility. Rather than tell a straightforward linear story, Ishiguro shifts perspectives as his narrative progresses. At first, we are guided by a narrator who seems to be our contemporary, one of those British experts who has some authority about the past:
You would have searched for a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were still native to this land. The people who lived nearby – one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots – might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist. But such creatures were not cause for astonishment.
I might point out here that navigation in open country was something much more difficult in those days, and not just because of the lack of reliable compasses and maps. We did not yet have the hedgerows that so pleasantly divide the countryside today into field, lane and meadow.
But this narrator soon recedes, only occasionally intruding to instruct us about the medieval world: ‘you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another.’ Apparently, the narrator imagines his readers as British teenagers familiar with school dinners, castles, country houses and the rolling meadows of the English countryside. He calls on us to acknowledge a bond with a British past and, perhaps, to share in a race memory of Arthurian legend – what is known as the Matter of Britain. Ishiguro, once again, is playacting a British stereotype.
For most of the novel, though, we are with the old man Axl, sharing in his thoughts and his struggle to remember. Axl cannot quite recall how he became the isolated creature who shares an unlighted hovel with his wife, Beatrice, though he does know that he once had a son and a life outside the miserable hillside warren where they live. Axl and Beatrice are old enough to feel a sense of a history beyond the daily life of their community of Britons, even if they cannot articulate it, and they set off on a journey – ostensibly to visit their son, but really in search of their own past.
Their quest brings a series of strange encounters. They find themselves accompanied by a Saxon warrior, Wistan, and Edwin, the boy he is training to join him. They meet the buffoonish figure of the elderly Sir Gawain under a tree. Together, this group visits a monastery in the hills. Little by little, some of the mist on the glass is wiped away and Axl’s past emerges as more than a simple family life. Both Gawain and Wistan recognise that Axl has played some role in Arthur’s defeat of the Saxons.
If it is a challenge to write a novel mainly through the consciousness of a character with little memory, Ishiguro makes it more difficult by consistently telling the immediate story as recollection. A whole chapter is devoted to Edwin’s recall of his capture by ogres and, at the beginning of Part II, a sleepless Axl thinks about what has occurred during the day, explaining how the group reached the monastery and what they have done there. Given that his distant past is out of reach, it does seem odd to rely so much on the short-term memory of a supposedly forgetful man. Wistan and Gawain seem not to suffer the same degree of forgetfulness as the old couple, and the novel increasingly relies on their perspectives to keep the story moving.
Much of the novel is dialogue, written in a conventionally stilted and archaic mode that can become laughable. Ishiguro loves linguistic formality and the novel gives him an opportunity to try his hand at the pseudo-medieval diction that has been part of the genre at least since Sir Walter Scott. As Le Guin observes on her blog, Axl’s consistent address of Beatrice as ‘princess’ becomes irritating. But most of the time Ishiguro writes unobtrusive and sometimes beautiful speeches and internal monologues for his characters. They are, though, often telling each other about what has happened in that nebulous past, slowly piecing together bits of memory that the reader must grasp and retain.
Without an understanding of the past, moral allegiances become confused. Our sympathies lie with the old couple – particularly the sweet and kindly Beatrice – who innocently trust the people they meet. On the other hand, Wistan plays the heroic action role, saving Edwin from ogres and declaring his intention to slay the dragon, Querig. At one point, a grey-haired Briton soldier shows kindness to Axl and Beatrice, allowing them and their companions to cross a bridge because they remind him of his own parents. When Wistan later ruthlessly cuts this man down, we begin to have doubts. The old couple help the Saxon Wistan in his deceit of the Britons, but can they trust him? Sir Gawain declares that he, too, intends to slay the dragon as a sacred charge from the long-dead King Arthur. He has been on this quest for years.
So the past has not been peaceful and simple. King Arthur has united Britain by forcing the Saxons into submission. Axl has played an important part in this, but now wanders with his wife trying to fathom what is going on. Dragons, ogres, malicious pixies and strange beasts complicate our sense of factual history as the couple venture into tunnels, forests, rivers and mountains. Missing parents and children haunt various characters.
Ishiguro’s withholding of narrative information makes us share the plight of his characters as they struggle with memory and understanding. Sometimes objects, buildings or geographical features tell us more than the actions of the characters: the couple walk carefully over a hill where they know a giant is buried; the ruins of a Roman villa indicate the loss of another civilisation centuries before; a tower in the monastery grounds reveals that the monastery has been a Saxon fort. When Wistan fights off the troops of Lord Brennus, he puts the tower to its original use, but the action occurs offstage and the details are delivered to us after Wistan has escaped. At one point, we are told that Sir Gawain has been too late to cut down the hound-like beast attacking the travellers in a tunnel, only to find that he has indeed killed it.
Towards its end, the novel’s perspectives shift between Axl, Edwin and Sir Gawain, who indulges in two reveries that provide us with all the Arthurian background we will get. Gawain is the only character likely to be recognised from outside sources, so he carries a sense of authenticity, at least as far as legend is concerned. Ishiguro has commented that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gave him inspiration for the novel, and he imagines the noble knight from the Middle English romance in old age, still noble, still journeying alone with his horse. It is a status that may be enhanced by knowledge of the poem.
The post-Arthurian setting allows Ishiguro to lead us from a verifiable historical world to the mythical. It invites us into the twilight world where legend and history are mixed, and we may find ourselves looking for plausible explanations for the ogres, and beasts, or the creature with the head of serpent and body of plucked chicken that infects Edwin with an urgent attraction for the she-dragon. At the same time, there is a sense that this fantasy may be part of our own lost memories – of the unrecorded history of the British people. In this aspect, the novel appears to be an attempt to imagine how people from another age might think. The current popularity of fantasy fiction suggests that there is a residual desire for mythical explanation among readers. Here, there is a kind of historical explanation, but also a level of metaphor (sometimes familiar, like the boatman who brings death, sometimes unfathomable, like the pixies) that intrudes in the historical speculation.
In his response to David Brooks’s review of The Snow Kimono in the Sydney Review of Books, Mark Henshaw explains that he raided Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills for the Japanese names in his book because he had Ishiguro’s novel at hand on his Kindle. Of course, he had opportunities to revise and change these names before publication, but he didn’t, so their retention, along with Ishiguro’s own name for the kimono merchant, suggests a kind of tribute to the English novelist with the Japanese background. Like Ishiguro, Henshaw deliberately plays with a range of genres, in his case visual narrative: film noir for the Paris sections of his novel, and the formal aesthetic of Japanese woodcuts and the beautiful patterns of the kimono in some of the Japanese sections.
Henshaw and Ishiguro share a commitment to fiction that is created from other fictions, and an interest in the patterns of storytelling. They have continued one of the forms of postmodernist fiction that Brooks refers to in his review. It is not the satiric mode where outlandish conjunctions of form come together at different fictional levels, but one that reflects an interest in the formal structures of storytelling and in a studied aesthetic language. Henshaw sees it as seeking a humanness, an emotional connection through story; where The Snow Kimono strives for human connection, it is less interested in the post-war history of Japan, though it gives us something of the history of the French Algerian crisis. Ishiguro’s novels, however, always give attention to historical circumstances, whatever their ostensible genre, even though the narrators of The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans fail to understand their own historical context.
In The Buried Giant, Ishiguro is writing about a time that remains a mystery to historians – a matter of archaeology and legend. In an interview with Alex Clark in the Guardian, Ishiguro makes explicit that he is interested in the moment before the Saxons fought and conquered the Britons, and interested in speculating about how that war might have emerged from Arthur’s previous conquest. The absence of recorded history opens a space for speculation, even fantasy. In The Buried Giant, the Saxons – Wistan and Edwin – represent the future, while their Briton travelling companions – Axl, Beatrice and Gawain – have only that dimly-remembered Arthurian past. The release of the Buried Giant carries with it resentments, knowledge of past atrocities and hatred, which we know will be directed at the Briton oppressors.
The idea that the maintenance of memory may bring brutal consequences has wider application, of course, whether in Northern Ireland, the breaking up of Eastern Europe, or the current crises in the Ukraine or the Middle East. It also may destroy personal relations, as Axl and Beatrice come to fear as their feeling for each other is challenged by the intimations of an angry and bitter past. For all its dressing in fantasy, the novel asks serious questions about the consequences of nursing grievances about the past. But as the hags harassing Gawain know, without memory, good or bad, we are nothing.
David Brooks, ‘The Wall, the Gate, the Balcony,’ Sydney Review of Books (2 October 2014).
Alex Clark, ‘Ishiguro’s Turn to Fantasy,’ Guardian (19 February 2015).
Mark Henshaw, ‘Correspondence: The Wall, the Gate, the Balcony,’ Sydney Review of Books (28 November 2014).
Ursula K. Le Guin, ’95: “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”’ (2 March 2015).
Adam Mars-Jones, ‘Micro-Shock,’ London Review of Books, vol. 37, no. 5 (5 March 2015).