Enter the dragon: spellbinding new novel from Kazuo Ishiguro
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber, tpbk, 345pp, €16.99
In an hour-long BBC4 interview last weekend, Kazuo Ishiguro explained to Mark Lawson why 10 years had elapsed between the publication of Never Let Me Go and that of his new novel.
In fact, he had begun The Buried Giant soon after completing that 2005 bestseller (later to be made into a movie starring Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightly), but when he showed the first 50 pages to his wife ("a tough but very good first reader"), she crisply informed him that the language he was using to narrate the story was all wrong and that "this just will not do".
Well, it does now. This is a beautifully written, exciting and moving novel, though its setting and storyline may bemuse those readers who chiefly know Ishiguro for Never Let me Go and the Booker-winning The Remains of the Day, both of them set in a recognisably recent past. Here we're back in an imagined England of post-Roman times, with Britons and Saxons living, after much bloodshed, in uneasy peace and with seemingly little to link their primitive existence to that of the modern world. Oh, and there are also ogres, sprites, pixies, dragons and Arthurian knights.
Yet the book's main concerns will be familiar to admirers of this 60-year-old Nagasaki-born author, who was brought to England as a child and who sees both his adopted country and the wider world beyond with the sympathetic detachment of an outsider. In particular, the ruinously suppressed feelings of the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day are echoed in the plight of elderly couple Axl and Beatrice, whose forgetfulness about their past lives they and their fellow Britons blame on the prevailing mist that lingers over the countryside.
This, at the novel's outset, sets them off on a quest to find their long-lost son, a quest that only reaches its ambiguous resolution at the book's poignant end, and along the way they encounter a motley lot of people, including fearless Saxon warrior Wistan, young boy Edwin who's been bitten by a she-dragon, a sinister monastery of duplicitous monks and an aged Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur but now, in his own words, just "a whiskery old fool".
It's a measure of Ishiguro that he makes these people and the inimical landscape they inhabit extraordinarily vivid, conjuring up this partly historical, partly dream world so expertly that we seem to be inhabiting it ourselves. And he never loses focus on his two central characters and their devotion to each other - a devotion that might be threatened if the slaying of the she-dragon and the lifting of the mist brings an end to their forgetfulness and causes them to recall uncomfortable truths about each other.
So, although the book might well be enjoyed by an intelligent young reader who favours novels of magical adventure set in a semi-mythical universe, it will have deeper resonances for those who ponder terrible events of more recent historical import. In that BBC4 interview, Ishiguro told Lawson that he had in mind the selective memory of post-war France, Japan and Bosnia. In Japan, he said, there had been a "massive forgetting" of the country's bloody past, and he posed the questions that need to be asked by such nations: "How accurately do we want to remember our past? When is it better to forget?"
These questions run through The Buried Giant, though not in any hectoring way. In the monastery where Axl, Beatrice, Wistan and Edwin seek shelter, one of the monks asks Beatrice "Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?" and argues that "the mist covers all memories, the bad as well as the good". But that's as explicit as the book gets - Ishiguro is far too subtle a writer to engage in overt polemics and too interested also in individual people and the complex emotions they feel.
Yet there's the underlying sense of a timeless fable being told, and at the beginning it's told with frequent nods to the readers, with such asides as "You may wonder", "I might point out here" and "This too might surprise you", though after a while, such interventions are dropped, as if the author had just forgotten about them. And at the very end, there's a shift to a first-person narrator, who isn't quite as reassuring as his confidential "I" might suggest.
But the book itself has all the assurance we've come to expect from this most fastidious, indeed almost stately, of writers, while its arresting storyline means that there's already talk of a screen version.
Yet while the James Ivory film of The Remains of the Day was very fine, with outstanding playing from Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, and the screen adaptation of Never Let Me Go was a creditable attempt at reimagining the original novel, Ishiguro's unobtrusively beguiling prose offers a pleasure to the reader that can't be replicated on screen.
Both available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091709350