- - Thursday, April 2, 2015



By Kazuo Ishiguro

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 336 pages

Few if any contemporary English novelists are more highly esteemed that Kazuo Ishiguro. Four of his novels have been nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and one — “The Remains of the Day” — won it (in 1989). It is the best known of his works, in part because it was made into a successful film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Readers of Mr. Ishiguro’s other books will know that he has also made forays into nonrealist genres, notably into dystopian sci-fi with “Never Let Me Go.” Even so, “The Buried Giant,” his first novel in 10 years, is likely to surprise with its fantastical events and setting, which are announced in the very first lines: “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate uncultivated land … The roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown … Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land.”

This desolate landscape turns out to be rich imaginative territory. Little is known about this period — more or less the sixth century — except that invading Saxons were fighting native Britons and pushing them out to the western areas of the British Isles. In “The Buried Giant” the wars have more or less ceased, though this is clearly only temporary. The ogres are still in business, and one of them, a she-dragon called Querig, not only terrifies with her past exploits, but may also be responsible for an epidemic of forgetfulness. People are hazy about events that happened only a month or so ago.

At the center of the tale the elderly British couple Axl and Beatrice live in a room in warren carved into a hillside. The other residents refuse to allow them to have a candle at night. They are almost outcasts. Why? They have forgotten what happened or what they did in their youth. Was Axl a warrior? They can’t remember. They barely remember that they had a son. He lives in another village. But where and why? Beatrice decides they must find him, so she and Axl start on a journey that they hope will take them to him.

Along their way they hook up with a Saxon warrior called Wistan, who is determined to kill Querig, and a boy Edwin, who is searching for his lost mother. They also meet Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur and one of the Knights of the Round Table. His armor is rusty and he is aged, but still pursuing his vocation as a knight as best he can. They also come to a river with a boatman who will take people over, but only one at a time. Beatrice learns that only couples who can prove that their love is perfect and true can cross the together. But since she can’t remember what has happened in their past life, she fears that she and Axl won’t be able to provide the necessary proof.

It is easy to see the river as Lethe — in Greek mythology the river of forgetfulness — and the boatmen as that same mythical boatman who ferries the dead to their resting place. Similarly, the mighty Wistan with his quest to kill the dragon stands in the line of dozens of mythic heroes, but none more so that Beowulf. And Sir Gawain is that same Gawain of that greatest of English heroic poems “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” yet at the same time his rusted armor and rueful remarks recall the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” All these evocations infuse “The Buried Giant” with meaning without nailing it tightly down. Similarly, the mistiness that clouds the minds of the British characters may suggest symbolic interpretations, yet without demanding them.

Indeed, it’s hard for a 21st century author to work with fantasy without being exposed to charges of delving the mines of allegory or wandering in the clouds of mysticism. The obverse of these charges seems to be what Mr. Ishiguro has achieved. His novel suggests much and asserts little except about the meaning and functions of memory. The characters and events that recall British literature are as misty and cloudy as the landscape traversed by the wanderers and questers of this melancholy and rather daunting tale. They flicker in the reader’s mind, raising thoughts, perhaps casting a little light or glow, but are too evanescent to chase.

Readers may admire this novel; many indeed will feel that its oddity demands a second or third reading. With or without such revisiting, it is a novel that solicits respect rather than love, and is likely to garner admiration for its prose and its ambition rather than affection for the experience it delivers.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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