By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times
The Buried Giant
Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber)
It’s been a while since I felt a glow of pride in South Africa, the muscle memory of post-94 euphoria having long atrophied. But Kazuo Ishiguro is urgently, emphatically, reminding me of what he calls our “shining example”, our achievement of balancing memory and forgetting in forging our new society. “It seems to me miraculous that you came through that without a civil war or horrendous violence, and you’ve had 20 years of democratic civilisation. Remarkable.”
This is not the time to quibble. Ishiguro, speaking to me from Cambridge, was nursing a cold and dreading the book tour travel ahead, with its attendant airport tedium. He was probably dreading a fresh offensive in the debate that has erupted around his book, too.
The Buried Giant is a quest myth, a fable set in the Dark Ages of Britannia in the years after the Romans bolted. It is a dank, dangerous land, swirling with fear and suspicion. Ishiguro peoples it with dragons and ogres, repulsive pixies and a decrepit Arthurian knight, giving rise to the suggestion that he is dabbling in the genre of fantasy, which according to the experts has no place in serious literary fiction. The keepers of the genre, meanwhile, believe it has been disparaged, and a petulant internecine war is being waged on august books pages on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ishiguro is sanguine about it. “I think the discussion about the shifting parameters of literary fiction is an interesting one, but I do also want people to just look at my book.”
An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set out from their manky hamlet dug into a hillside in search of their lost son. At least, they think they have a son. For there is a veil of amnesia that lies over the land, a magical mist breathed out by the she-dragon Querig that causes people to forget the past. On the way they meet a Saxon warrior with his young apprentice and the aged knight Sir Gawain, crotchety remnant of the glorious court of Arthur.
We gradually realise that the mist is masking the memory of war, a holocaust of slaughter that had swept through the land. The obliteration of these events has enabled the people to live relatively peacefully.
“What I want people to think about when they read it is not genre, but the big questions of remembering and forgetting. How do societies go forward into the future when they have dark things in their history? To what extent do they need to go back and examine the dark passages and when do they need to just bury it so that society can stop disintegrating into cycles of violence and go forward?”
He needed the supernatural elements, he says, to tell a metaphorical story. He didn’t want to set it in Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Rwanda because that would have brought it closer to non-fiction.
The genesis of the story – 10 years in the writing – lies in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ishiguro was influenced by Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, as well, but also mentions the Japanese folk takes he grew up with, “Samurais lopping off the arms of demons on bridges and that sort of thing.” He also talks animatedly about Westerns. “I’m rather fond of 70s Westerns, they had an elegiac quality about them, lone gunfighters who are out of time, who no longer have a place in society. That had a lot to do with my picture of Sir Gawain.”
Central to the story, too, is the love between Axl and Beatrice. “It’s about the long slog of love,” he says, “how you stay together over years and years and years. Shared memories are crucial to it.” But again, he asks, do you bury the inevitable dark memories of a relationship, or re-examine them?
Reviews have been, as they say, mixed, ranging from “weird” to “wonderous”. It is a difficult book, its language is odd and courtly, the pace supine at times, but eventually it casts a quiet spell.
Ishiguro raises the South African transition to democracy again. The TRC may have buried our particular giant, I say, but the corpse keeps rearing up. “But it hasn’t risen up to cause civil war,” he says. “Yugoslavia is a perfect example of what happens when sleeping giants aren’t dealt with properly. It disintegrated.”
Follow Michele on Twitter @michelemagwood
- The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Find this book with BOOK Finder!
Image: Jeff Cottenden