THE BURIED GIANT. By Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf. 317 pages. $26.95.
“The Buried Giant,” Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since “Never Let Me Go” (2005), extends his most durable preoccupations with persistent and uncertain memory, relentless and sometimes random guilt, and the interplay of personal collapse and cultural crackup. Once again, as in “Never Let Me Go,” “When We Were Orphans” and “The Unconsoled,” Ishiguro veers off the sleek narrative highway and into bumpy, uncertain and daring territory.
He sets his new novel in early medieval Britain, when Arthurian ideals are giving way. This ragged Britain teems with fantastic threats (ogres, she-dragons, vicious pixies, mad monks) and the terrors of our everyday world (death, abandonment, forgetfulness). The roads are clogged with wayfarers, all mourning vague losses. A mist of forgetfulness has settled over the land. The collective amnesia may keep citizens docile, but it robs them of their past, and of all the joys and resentments that the fog obscures. Their lives shrink to a moment.
Often in Ishiguro’s novels, an eerie normality masks the weird truths that his characters repress. Not so in “The Buried Giant,” at least not in the beginning. Here, we seem to have destitution and lost identity without the psychological intrigue of self-deception. Ishiguro’s main characters are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly Briton couple who have come down in the world. Once important enough to occupy a central spot near the fire in their village, they now sleep on the outskirts of the community and suffer the taunts of children.
Through it all, they have walked the same path, side by side, for many years. They know their lives have been broken by some calamity or sadness and that it involves their son, but that’s all they remember. Would they be closer and more whole if they could remember what hurt them? Or are they able to remain close because they retain the memory but have been robbed of the details? Is it enough to know that they’ve made it to the other side of disaster? What would happen if the “buried giant” of the past were dug up?
Ishiguro activates his plot with a decision: Axl and Beatrice agree to take to the road and walk to their son’s village. They can’t remember their son’s face, the color of his eyes, nothing. Beatrice tells Axl, “It’s as if we’ve mislaid a precious stone.”
Yet they persevere. The land is desolate and uncultivated, with the vestiges of old Roman roads overgrown and fading into wildness. Their first stop is a ruined Roman villa, owned by a boatman and occupied as well by an old woman who curses him with accusations night and day. The old woman’s story, when she tells it, sets stakes for later scenes in the novel.
The woman and her husband commissioned the ferryman to take them to a strange island. The island is inhabited, but no one sees anyone else, so each person is like a solitary dweller. When it comes time to transport the couple, the boatman interviews each separately and tests their shared memories. It is up to him to evaluate their bond for true love or resentment. The old woman failed the memory test and lost her husband. She asks Beatrice, “How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can’t remember the past you’ve shared?” The question looms, unanswered, as Ishiguro’s couple continues their journey.
Moving, like homelessness, is an existential condition for Ishiguro’s wanderers, but it also connects them to philosophical ideas about knowledge, eviction and restitution. Axl and Beatrice are Christians who know the hazards of chasing after forbidden knowledge. Repeatedly, they contemplate as they wander whether remembrance would be salvation or doom for them. Along the way, they pick up a gang of fellow travelers and a quest: They are all headed to slay Querig, the she-dragon whose breath creates the mist that has enchanted them. Together with Wistan, a Saxon warrior, Edwin, a boy he rescued from ogres, and a frail Sir Gawain, still creaking along in his rusty armor, Beatrice and Axl trudge from episode to melancholy episode.
Slowly, Ishiguru reveals some of Axl’s past. It’s not giving away too much to say that Wistan recalls him as “a wonder ... who moved through the village like a lion among sheep and cows.” As hidden antagonisms and buried bodies emerge, so does a healthy aspect of forgetting. The dragon’s breath makes warring Saxons and Britons cast aside their history. Forgetting the bloody past, it turns out, may be the price of peace.
Ishiguro’s drifty, ominous tale pulls readers into the mist along with his characters and allows us to experience their confusion. His genius is to put us into contact with the unasked-for conditions and forgotten motives of our own lives. For a while, the dreamscape — or delirium — of the long quest seems to overtake the story of Axl and Beatrice. But in the end, it’s the haunting, rueful love story that delivers the wallop of truth.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.