© Rob Ball

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber, RRP£20/Knopf, RRP$26.95, 352 pages

Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel for a decade is, on one level, a complete surprise. It’s set in England in the Dark Ages no less, perhaps in the fifth or early sixth century, a period about which little certain is known. The Romans have left Britain and the Saxons have arrived, built settlements, and fought wars of conquest and survival. The people Ishiguro calls “Britons” have been forced into an uneasy accommodation with the settlers, and ogres and pixies roam a bleak, damp landscape.

Ishiguro has set novels in a parallel dystopian England in which child clones are being reared for organ donation in ignorance of their ultimate fate (Never Let Me Go, 2005), and in an imaginary central European city in which a concert pianist finds himself lost in a kind of surrealist nightmare of coincidence, farce and mistaken identity (The Unconsoled, 1995). He is no realist. But I never expected to encounter a she-dragon in his fiction or, for that matter, the wizard Merlin, from Arthurian legend.

Yet for all its flights of fantasy and supernatural happenings — a mist has settled over the land forcing people into a condition of forgetfulness, or so they believe — The Buried Giant is absolutely characteristic, moving and unsettling, in the way of all Ishiguro’s fiction. It’s less a case of “Game of Thrones meets The Hobbit”, as one wag has dubbed it, than a novel of imaginative daring that, in its subtleties of tone, mood and reflection, could be the work of no other writer.

Open it at any page and you will recognise the cadences of the cool, restrained, meticulous sentences and paragraphs. In the manner of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Ishiguro has created a fantastical alternate reality in which, in spite of the extremity of its setting and because of its integrity and emotional truth, you believe unhesitatingly.

The dialogue, in particular, though baffling at first, beguiles through slow accumulation. The characters address one another with elaborate courtesy and formality, even at times of stress or approaching violence. One hears echoes of the chivalric codes and vocabulary of the medieval romance tradition — one of the main characters is a knight named Sir Gawain, “nephew of the great Arthur who once ruled these lands” — but in no way is it a work of pastiche or cod historical melodrama. And many of the themes are familiar from previous novels: the unreliability of historical memory, the way the past interacts with and disrupts the present, the regrets we nurture but never fully confront or understand, the ever-present reality of mortality.

The Buried Giant can be read as a quest narrative, rich in allusion; as an allegory about post-conflict resolution and the way nations and their peoples cope with and recover from wars and trauma; and as a story that explores the meaning of love in its various manifestations. It can also be read most straightforwardly as an adventure story about the trials endured by an aged married couple as they embark on a journey. Something disturbing in the family has happened and Axl and Beatrice, the couple, have become inexplicably separated from their son, whom they believe is living in a distant village and is waiting for them.

Axl and Beatrice are deeply in love, yet are confused about the origins of this love: both suffer from failing memory and peer at the world through a thick mist of unknowing. They are haunted by fears of being separated from each other and by the realisation that they have forgotten whole chunks of their life together. (The novel could also be read as a parable about Alzheimer’s, and about how this terrible disease devours memory and with it one’s continuity of consciousness through time.)

The husband and wife face many obstacles and mortal threats on their journey. Along the way they meet Sir Gawain, whom Ishiguro transforms into a garrulous, horse-loving comic grotesque, as well as a Saxon warrior named Wistan, from the eastern “fens”, whose mission it is to slay the she-dragon. Wistan becomes the self-appointed protector of a young Saxon boy, who is an outcast from his village. He sees in the boy something of himself — someone blessed with “a warrior’s heart”.

One of the mysteries of the book concerns the narrator. Who is the absent author? Who is in charge here? One is aware of a bashful, occasionally self-referring presence who seems directly to address the reader as if from a perspective far in the future: “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated.” Let’s call him Ishiguro.

The novel itself is told variously from Axl’s and the boy’s points of view. There are also two extended first person interjections, or “reveries”, from Sir Gawain. In the final chapter, in which we move from the past to the present tense, a Charon-like figure identified as a “boatman” accepts the baton of narrative responsibility.

Each of the main characters is, in different ways, lost. Each is uncertain about the past, unsure of present circumstances and scared of what the future will bring — Wistan predicts there will be wars “when ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest” and this England will “become a new land, a Saxon land”. Each is tormented by voices, dreams, visions and half-remembered episodes. Each is searching for something or someone in “this land cursed by a mist of forgetfulness”. The overall effect is one of mystery and mystification. Even after you have finished the book, many days later, you find you can’t stop thinking about it.

Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Kazuo Ishiguro came with his parents to live in England at the age of five. After working as a musician and then studying creative writing under Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia, he published his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), which was set in England and a war-devastated Nagasaki, when he was 28. His second, the wonderfully subtle and melancholy An Artist of the Floating World (again set in Japan, just after the war), won the Whitbread book of the year award in 1986. Three years later The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize and made him famous. It became a critically acclaimed international bestseller and was adapted into a film by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant.

This early success liberated Ishiguro. “Screenplays I didn’t really care about, journalism, travel books, getting my writer friends to write about their dreams or something. I was just determined to write the books I had to write,” he said in 2005.

The intervals between novels became more extended, the works themselves longer and more experimental. He moved away from the quiet, ruminative realism of his first three novels, which were written in the first-person, and began to explore different forms: surrealism, the detective novel in When We Were Orphans (2000), science fiction.

Ishiguro’s first three novels were each about the consequences of the second world war on individuals who had not fought in it but whose lives were affected by it. In each he explores themes of culpability and collaboration, national reconciliation and personal regret. The reticent narrators — a middle-aged widow (Pale View), an elderly artist (Floating World), a repressed, buttoned-up English butler (Remains of the Day) — are like detectives investigating their own past lives and struggling to understand why they acted when and as they did.

Ishiguro is not a flashy or ostentatious writer, unlike several of his near-contemporaries, notably Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, with whom he was grouped as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 and whose achievements he has since surpassed. Amis — writing under the influence of Nabokov and Saul Bellow — once speculated to me about being the “most influential writer” of his generation, and boasted that he wanted to write sentences that “no other guy could have written”. For Amis, in other words, linguistic novelty and original use of metaphor — aspects of what he called the “high style” — were the greatest virtues.

One never hears such bombast from Ishiguro, and yet he is a stylist, a master of nuance, artful withholding and of making strange what can seem most familiar or habitual — the technique the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky called “defamiliarisation”. One detects the influence of European modernists such as Kafka and Ford Madox Ford on his oblique, indirect methods of narration.

Reading his fiction, no matter whether the setting is Japan just after the war, a country house in the 1930s or a boarding school in a bucolic English setting in the 1970s, the reader experiences just as the characters do a sense that nothing is as it seems or should be.

There’s a deeper truth available or hinted at but, for whatever reason, it can never be fully grasped — or, perhaps, it’s simply too painful to contemplate or comprehend. As TS Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, and as Ishiguro reminds us again and again: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

Ishiguro has disavowed the influence of his Japanese heritage — he says he grew up in Surrey reading Sherlock Holmes novels and watching Hollywood westerns — yet in a 1985 essay he wrote admiringly about Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1968. Kawabata was working in the “classical” tradition of Japanese prose-writing — a tradition, as Ishiguro wrote, “which placed value on lyricism, mood and reflection rather than on plot and character”. Kawabata’s understated, spare fictions, like Ishiguro’s, especially the first three novels, leave much unsaid and unexplained; there is a presiding sense of ambiguity and of sadness. Kawabata was a nostalgist and profound conservative, who declared, after the surrender and defeat of Japan in 1945, that he would write “only elegies”.

Ishiguro ended his essay by saying that Kawabata’s novels “offer experiences unlikely to be found anywhere else in western fiction”. Something similar could be said of Ishiguro himself and of the place he occupies today in English letters, because there’s no one like him. His books are among the strangest, most haunting and affecting in contemporary literature. You might forget certain details about what happens in them or individual characters but never their mood or atmosphere, as anyone who reads The Buried Giant will discover.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman

Illustration by Rob Ball

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