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’.
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