Never mind the name, Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the best British writers in the business, and his dazzling latest novel, The Buried Giant, may just be his best yet.
Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple living in Dark Ages Britain. Like everyone else in their village and, so far as anyone knows, everyone else in the land, they are under a spell of amnesia, recalling only dim fragments of the past, and those only fleetingly. It's as though a "mist" lies between them and their memories.
But one day they resolve to go on a journey, and it seems to them that the matter is urgent. For all their inability to be certain about the reason, they feel they must visit their son in a nearby village.
The land they must traverse is fraught with dangers, natural and supernatural. Strangers are to be mistrusted. There are malevolent faeries, sprites and ogres abroad, the malign influence of a buried giant and the lurking presence of a dragon.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
When they stop for shelter in a ruined farmhouse, they encounter an old woman and a boatman. The boatman complains that the old woman is tormenting him; she retorts that he once deceived her and deprived her of her husband. The boatman admits that it is his job to ferry people to an island from a cove not far from where they are. Since his boat can only take one passenger at a time, when a couple present themselves for passage, it is his custom to take the man first. During the crossing, he is bound (by whomever or whatever employs him) to ask his fare questions, designed to gauge the depth and strength of the couple's love for one another. If it is in any way deficient, he will decline to take the woman to join her husband - as happened in the old woman's case.
After this unsettling encounter, Axl and Beatrice fall in with Wistan, a Saxon warrior who has travelled east on some secret quest, and Sir Gawain, a knight of the recently dead King Arthur's Round Table, who has, according to popular belief, been charged with killing Querig, the dragon. Their several fates, it seems, are mingled, and it becomes apparent that Querig is the source of the national amnesia lying over the land.
As they travel toward the dragon's lair, fragments of memory begin to return to Axl and Beatrice. These are deeply unsettling. Axl begins to suspect that he and Sir Gawain were once comrades-in-arms in the bitter war between the Saxons and the Britons - an episode in the recent past that the dragon's spell has conveniently suppressed.
And whereas he and Beatrice are at first quite certain they would pass the boatman's test if ever they were put to it - and there is a sense of inevitability that they will - this confidence erodes as memories of their personal past surface.
The setting and the queer rules by which the characters in The Buried Giant are obliged to play give it an epic, fairy tale feel; yet there is realism amid the magic, too - the moral complexity, and the emotional truth of Axl and Beatrice's relationship, which makes the open ending so intense and excruciating. Sir Gawain remarks upon how shallow-buried beneath England's green and pleasant sward are the skeletons of those who died in the atrocities of the recent wars: and as Axl and Beatrice discover, the same is true in their own lives.
The moral - if a single moral can be drawn - is how much of forgiving is forgetting?
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
(Faber & Faber $36.99)