Chivalry’s Dark Age
I rarely buy novels in hardback form – usually because by the time I get around to reading them they’re out in paperback – but the chance to pick up a signed copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’ on a recent shopping trip was, I felt, too good to pass up. As his first novel for a decade, it had been greeted with the kind of fanfare that reminds us of how, twenty-five years after ‘The Remains of the Day’ won the Booker Prize, he is considered a writer whose work constitutes an ‘event’ on publication.
‘The Buried Giant’ lives up to its billing: it is a rich, complex exploration of both a relationship and a wider world. It is, though, more than that in its indebtedness to a genre of literature (the medieval romance and ‘quest’ narrative) that its author has never tackled so directly before. Without giving away spoilers, it travels through what might be deemed ‘familiar’ Ishiguro territory: the emotional world in which memories of the past are shifting and not always reliable, and where we sense that a desire to ‘understand’ some past event or action may not always bring the closure our narrator or protagonist really believes it will. At the heart of this tale is a marriage both tender and strong, between the elderly Axl and Beatrice, but the reader always senses things are unsaid or imperfectly remembered between them. Conversations stumble to a halt or tail off with resigned agreement to let subjects drop. Their journey, to visit their son, seems to have opened up the possibilities of other journeys, through their lives up to this point.
The difference with previous Ishiguro novels is the setting: a mysterious and unsettling Britain, some years after the departure of the Romans and the reign of King Arthur, in which Britons and Saxons exist in an uneasy truce. As so often in his work, we sense that something is wrong, but cannot articulate what it is. If the country is at peace, why should characters (and the reader) have a sense of anxiety about the possibility that old hatreds will flare into new conflict? What are the people like who live amongst the ruins of a lost world? Who is the ‘buried giant’ of the title? What are the characters not telling us, and what are they not remembering themselves? Memory, in this case, is a problematic thing as the very land in which the novel unfolds is under a magical spell designed to foster forgetfulness. To recall the past is often impossible, and carries with it a sense of danger, as though peace and oblivion were in many ways the same thing.
Ishiguro seems to have enjoyed this departure from his usual 20th century environments, and the reader wanders through a landscape that is both strange and oddly familiar at the same time. If you’ve read any medieval romances (and I would say that Simon Armitage’s recent version of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ is a reference point for much of this novel) the world and its characters may seem familiar, but they are rendered slightly off-key here, as though we can’t trust them to act as the genre of chivalric romance would have them do. The literature of Arthurian legend returns time and again to themes of loyalty, honour, trust, love, and courage, but ‘The Buried Giant’ holds each of these up for analysis and problematises them for its reader; aware, perhaps, that behind each exemplary romance there are more omissions that we might think. Turning for his inspiration into a world more usually viewed today through the prism of ‘Game of Thrones’ Ishiguro has made the distant past, and the literature that it inspired, a space for one of the most awkward questions in our world today: is a peace (personal or national) based on forgetfulness actually a peace at all?