It’s typical of Kazuo Ishiguro’s low-key, misdirecting approach to the business of fiction that, although the book contains such creatures as dragons and pixies, the buried giant of his new novel’s title should be an analogy explained only a few pages before the narrative ends. The revelation comes as a micro-shock or nano-coup, a slow burn converging on a fizzle. It’s remarkable that such a dedicated whisperer has survived and prospered in our shouty times – still, very ordinary things can be said in a whisper.
The first page of The Buried Giant locates the story both in historical Britain and outside it, with the roads left by the Romans ‘broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness’, and the prevalence of icy fog disguising the occasional approach of ‘the ogres that were then still native to this land’. King Arthur is remembered not just as a legend but as someone it was possible to serve. Britons and Saxons live in separate communities but with a certain amount of overlap, any tensions kept below a simmer. You could describe events in the book as dreamlike, except that dreams are vivid. If the reader has difficulty getting a bearing on this world there is some excuse, since the people living in it suffer from the same problem. The first character to be introduced, Axl, can’t remember if he has children or not, and his wife, Beatrice, though she remembers things he has forgotten, has plenty of memory holes of her own. They’re both old, but that isn’t the reason for the indistinctness of their grasp on the past – in fact compared with the other people in their community their recall is relatively sharp, which gives them an edge. At least they are aware of the defectiveness of their own mental operations.
It’s lazy to assume that people’s minds in the past worked in the same way as ours do, and it seems briefly possible that Ishiguro is setting out to re-create a vanished set of perceptions, as William Golding did with his Neanderthals in The Inheritors. Lok, Mal, Nil and the others had pictures in their minds, and some way of sharing them, though they lacked language. Beatrice and Axl are in the opposite predicament, with language available but a shortage of definite impressions to pass on. This literary possibility, though, is a false trail: it turns out that some sort of epidemic of amnesia, supernatural in origin, is dissolving memories. Once Axl and Beatrice have reconstituted a recall of their son substantial enough to justify an expedition they set off to join him, hoping that along the way they will be able to remember where he lives. Surely he’s expecting them?
The settlement they are leaving is described as being partly underground, more of a warren than a village. Perhaps it’s this feature that recalls the hobbit-holes of Tolkien’s Shire. Tolkien uses the Shire to provide an introduction to settled life in Middle-earth before huge events threaten it, but that’s not the way Ishiguro proceeds in his own first section. Even allowing for the chronic vagueness of the inhabitants, there is some blur left over. Tolkien didn’t model the workings of Middle-earth in any great explicitness, despite much entertaining commentary online about the economic impact of a gold-hoarding dragon (‘If Smaug removed the vast bulk of the money supply, and the lack of dwarves under the mountain meant that no additional coins were being made …’), but he certainly cared about enriching his fictional texture. Fantasy is a hard discipline that rewards attention to detail. The critic Guy Davenport, a student of Tolkien’s, learned very little of the morphology and syntax of Old English from him; Tolkien wasn’t helped by his speech impediment and inability to keep to the point. But in a later conversation with Allen Barnett, who had been an Oxford classmate of Tolkien’s, Davenport learned that ‘Ronald’ had shown a great fascination with the surnames in Barnett’s native state: ‘He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.’ According to Davenport, practically all of the names Tolkien chose for his hobbits (Tooks, Brandybucks, Burrowses, Proudfoots) can be found in the phone books of Lexington, or failing that, Shelbyville, and he claimed that most of these Kentuckyans ‘grow and cure pipe-weed for a living’.
The sixty-odd inhabitants of the warren where Axl and Beatrice have been living seem to have no hierarchy, though there’s a council that issues edicts. Items such as blankets, water flasks and stocks of tinder are communally owned. Before they set off, something for which they need permission, Axl and Beatrice must negotiate for the supplies they will need to take (‘securing their use required much bargaining with neighbours’), though under a barter system it’s hard to see what they might have to offer in exchange, since their status seems to be low – they aren’t allowed a candle, for instance – and by leaving they are in effect withdrawing their labour. They’re hardly in a position to make promises. It seems a similar set-up to the one in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (‘We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune – we take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week’), and the council system must make considerable demands on the fragile collective memory, unable as it is to retain the information, for instance, that a child has gone missing. In practice disputes are settled by squabbles, though religious authority in the form of a pastor sometimes intervenes to make peace. There are trades, to judge by a reference to a woman who lost her husband, a blacksmith, the previous year. This is presented only as a personal loss, though a year is a long time for a small community to be without a key worker.
The two old people set off on their indeterminate journey eastward and the novel’s rules of engagement change – social nuance not being something you could reasonably expect from a journey on foot in the Dark Ages. Sheltering from the rain in a dilapidated Roman villa, Axl and Beatrice interrupt, and seek to resolve, an argument between an old woman and a ferryman. She accuses him of taking her husband across the water to an island without returning for her. He explains that he’s only doing his job:
Occasionally a couple may be permitted to cross to the island together, but this is rare. It requires an unusually strong bond of love between them. It does sometimes occur, I don’t deny, and that’s why when we find a man and wife, or even unmarried lovers, waiting to be carried over, it’s our duty to question them carefully. For it falls to us to perceive if their bond is strong enough to cross together. This lady is reluctant to accept it, but her bond with her husband was simply too weak. Let her look into her heart, then dare say my judgment that day was in error.
If this ferryman could be described as enigmatic he is an enigma of an entirely transparent sort; he could hardly announce his function in the book more clearly if he gave his name as Foreshadowing. From this point on, Beatrice becomes preoccupied with the importance of lifting the spell of amnesia, for fear that she and Axl will fail the ferryman’s test out of forgetfulness and be separated in some definitive way.
After the wispy scene-setting of the first chapter and the flat narrative prophecy of the second (the ferryman will be back), it’s in the third chapter, set in a Saxon village, that something in the way of plot finally begins to condense out of the fog. Monstrous creatures have captured a boy from the village. A warrior recently arrived from the east of the country leads a successful expedition to rescue him, but the boy is treated, when he returns, as somehow contaminated and uncanny. The warrior (Wistan) takes the boy (Edwin) under his protection, and travels on with Axl and Beatrice, who have decided to consult a monk with medical knowledge, since Beatrice is obscurely ailing. Before they reach the monastery, though, they encounter a veteran knight who turns out to be Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew (despite a certain similarity to Lewis Carroll’s White Knight).
From this point onwards there’s no shortage of events. In fact an illustrator of 1950s adventure stories – offered a précis of The Buried Giant rather than the book itself – would feel almost oversupplied with opportunities for dramatic images, whose captions might read The devil dog charged towards them down the tunnel or The hay concealed round the bottom of the tower burst instantly into crackling flame or The evil pixies swarmed all over the old woman in the coracle. On the basis (again) of its plot skeleton you might expect The Buried Giant to be billed as Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel for young adults.
The YA novel is somewhere between a genre and a marketing sector, as is shown by the porousness of the boundary separating it from the novel as such. Even before the Harry Potter books were published with two sets of covers to fit the self-images of two overlapping readerships, Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer, marketed domestically as a children’s book, could be published in Italian translation as for adults. The Young Adult label has a faintly disparaging though illogical overtone (would anyone want to be described as an old adult?), but it is commercially and creatively lively, and it would be no insult to The Buried Giant to admit it into that category. It’s certainly not too bleak, bleakness no longer being a disqualification from excellence and success in the field, if it ever was (I’m thinking of Sally Gardner’s 2013 Carnegie Medal winner, Maggot Moon, a dystopia at least as unflinching as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go).
In fact the same things that make it hard to take The Buried Giant seriously as a novel for adults would also block its success with a junior readership. The impression given by Ishiguro’s prose, across many books, is of an absence of bass and treble frequencies, a curious middling muffle. His style isn’t fancy, but it isn’t plain either, just dogged and approximative. It seems out of focus, in a way that might suggest a writer pulling his punches, mistakenly trying to write down to his audience, though no one in any field would set out to pull punches in every single bout. As recent interviews prove, Ishiguro doesn’t seem embarrassed by his lack of virtuosity as a writer of English, and is anything but an egomaniac. Editorially it would do him a favour to highlight imprecisions of word choice, instead of deferring to an expertise he doesn’t claim. ‘Entrails’ for instance can only refer to guts, internal organs, and to use the word to describe the damaged muscle tissue of a severed arm makes no sense. To say that a stream ‘trickled with urgency’ reveals that you haven’t grasped the element of non-urgency central to the meaning of trickling. To say that rain has soaked the ‘early’ layers of some rugs can’t really mean ‘uppermost’, though the context won’t allow it to mean anything else. But however thoroughgoing the tweakwork on the level of language, there’s no turning Ishiguro into a dispenser of narrative excitement. His literary temperament opposes it.
There’s another British writer of the same generation who could also be described as preferring doggedness to seduction or pyrotechnics, and that’s Graham Swift. Swift’s 2003 novel The Light of Day, for instance, titrates basic narrative information from the stingiest of pipettes, but the relentless slowness of the additive process only adds to the tension generated. In The Buried Giant the author seems to guard against tension with every means at his disposal. His vigilance lapses, it’s true, on one page of the third chapter in particular, with Axl recognising something about the warrior’s way of carrying himself: ‘When the stranger, striding into the midst of the crowd, allowed his hand to fall and rest on the sword handle, Axl had felt, almost tangibly, the peculiar mix of comfort, excitement and fear such a movement could bring.’ There’s a tingling here, not just in Axl but in the nervous system of the book, a momentary elevation of blood pressure and heartbeat before the normal sluggish pulse reasserts itself.
When you consider the underlying events of the plot, and the true sources of the conflict between the characters, it becomes not just perverse but almost a heroic achievement to keep the reader so eerily detached from what is going on. (Hardly since Maeterlinck’s day has there been such an abstention from the principle of drama, though Ishiguro makes an unlikely symbolist.) The amnesia epidemic is caused by the breath of the she-dragon Querig. Sir Gawain was entrusted with the task of her destruction by King Arthur many years before, and regards it as his business exclusively. Wistan has been more recently given the same job as a matter of urgency by the Saxon lord Brennus. Edwin, meanwhile, has been deliberately infected with a bite from a baby dragon, whose effect is to make him a sort of draconian bloodhound, drawn inexorably towards Querig and, it seems, driven to mate with her.
How is it possible to override the natural movement of such material towards the rollicking and the rip-roaring? One obvious first step is to kill pace, and this is close to standard practice among writers who want to enter genre territory without losing sight of literary priorities. It’s true that for Ian McEwan, in various books, the pace of genre seems to be part of what attracted him in the first place (and the resulting hybrids sometimes have a lopsided, three-legged-race quality in consequence), but slowing the tempo has been an effective device for John Updike in The Witches of Eastwick and Hilary Mantel in Beyond Black. Both of these writers compensate with a stronger evocation of atmosphere, a finer descriptive grain, while Ishiguro opts for deceleration without a thickening of texture. There’s plenty of dialogue in The Buried Giant, and dialogue would normally speed up the flow of prose, but not when it’s so strongly flavoured with rhubarb (‘Has some sprite bewitched you, maiden? I came from the valley floor just now where seasoned warriors spew out their stomachs from dread. I’d not have you hear even a distant echo of it. And why that hoe so large for you?’).
Anticlimax certainly has a powerful braking effect on the experience of reading, and anticlimax is second nature to Ishiguro, though perhaps it would make sense for him to throw in the odd orthodox climax, just to keep disappointment fresh and the impression of unpredictability alive. The devil dog in the tunnel beneath the monastery, for instance, making an appearance after pages of build-up, must have been hoping for more from its moment in the limelight than this:
Twisting, Axl looked around the pillar in time to see the beast leap forward. The old knight’s face, caught in moonlight, looked aghast as he swung his sword, but too late, and the creature was past him and moving unerringly towards Edwin.
The boy’s eyes grew large but he did not drop the candle. Instead he moved aside, almost as if out of politeness, to let the beast pass. And to Axl’s surprise, the creature did just that, running on into the blackness of the tunnel out of which not long ago they had all emerged.
It doesn’t return but just trots off. As a performance it’s closer to clockwork mouse than Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s true that there is an element of misdirection in the passage quoted, since Gawain’s sword was not in fact swung too late but decapitated the creature, something that Axl might be expected to notice, helped after all by the candle and the moonlight. Still, the severed head has its own curtain call of marginal spookiness: ‘It lay on its side, its one visible eye gleaming like a sea creature. The jaws moved rhythmically with a strange energy, so that the tongue, flopping amidst the teeth, appeared to stir with life.’ The assumption seems to be that misdirection is a virtue in itself, and that anticlimax outranks climax, though there’s no reason to think so. Climax need not be facile, nor is anticlimax necessarily the marker of a subtle sensibility.
Historical research wouldn’t normally play a big part in the writing of a novel that features dragon bites and Sir Gawain, but there are a couple of details about the combat scenes in The Buried Giant that have a certain authority. Surrounded by so much that is vaporous, they seem positively gritty. A swordsman, for instance, must be careful not to draw his weapon earlier than he has to (though knights in films draw them at a moment’s notice), since its great weight will start draining his strength immediately. Axl notices, in a stand-off between a mounted soldier and Wistan, who is on foot, that the soldier makes a small but significant adjustment of position:
Before, with Wistan standing where he was, the head and neck of the soldier’s own horse would momentarily have obstructed his first swing of the sword, giving Wistan vital time either to unsettle the horse, or run to its blind side, where the sword’s reach was diminished in scope and power by having to be brought across the body. But now the small adjusting of the horse had made it practically suicidal for an unarmed man, as Wistan was, to storm the rider. The soldier’s new position seemed also to have taken expert account of Wistan’s mare, loose some distance behind the soldier’s back.
Wistan’s sword is in the pack his mare is carrying, so for the moment he is helpless. But a little later Wistan gives a special signal (it’s like the cry of a forlorn fox) and his mare responds, passing in front of him and giving him a moment of cover. When he’s visible again, Wistan is standing exactly where he was but now has a sword in his hand. It’s all done with the slickness of a Hollywood special effect, and certainly nearer to the territory of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves than the Morte D’Arthur.
It would take only a little roughening up of the texture to rehabilitate this moment, but elsewhere the whole conception seems synthetic. In this self-sabotaging adventure story there is no stranger moment than the big fight at the monastery, amounting to a de-dramatised set-piece. The account of it is split between a speculative rehearsal and a retrospective description, with nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes. Wistan lays a trap for the forces sent to intercept him, making use of the advantages that derive from choosing his terrain, in this case a tower with the unusual feature of an internal moat. Although he mentions the possibility that this was some sort of abattoir or killing floor, he also reads in the architecture that the whole edifice, with its circular staircase and open top, was intended for strategic use, in the days when the complex of buildings was a hill fort rather than a monastery. There’s an inconspicuous door near the top of the tower, behind which a torch may be left burning in readiness for the ambush to come. Since it will be thirty against one, everything must be planned to the last detail.
Having filled the moat with hay and firewood, all Wistan has to do is fight off the soldiers one by one from a commanding position on the stairs, gradually retreating upwards so as to give the impression that his resistance is weakening. Then at the proper moment he can drop a torch into the moat, filled as it is with flammable material. By the time his attackers have realised what is happening they will be trapped, doomed to burn. As for Wistan, it’s a small matter for him to jump from the top of the tower at the last possible moment, having arranged for a hay wagon to be left in a suitable position to cushion his fall. This is classic big-screen derring-do, in a tradition that stretches beyond Kevin Costner to the heyday of Flynn and Fairbanks, and what it’s doing in a novel on a literary list is anyone’s guess. The impact of the scene has been reduced virtually to nothing, but the ghost of its Hollywood slickness lingers. From the reader’s point of view it’s like excavating the supposed site of a medieval abbey and discovering the ruins of a multiplex cinema.