No book is completely original. Too much has been said before. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant comes as close as any novel of recent times to breaking genuinely new ground. As much as anything, this is related to mood. The latter is what remains from a book after names and other details have faded. Often we are less conscious of it while reading but in this case the atmosphere captures or bemuses us right from the start. How is this trick performed? Characters regard as normal things which are anything but. The world that seems real to them strikes us as dreamlike or illogical. Their emotions are familiar and involving, their expectations and response to events not. And we are equally wrong-footed in terms of fictional genre. Is it historical? Tenuously, at best. How about romance, in the original sense of the word? There are elements of quest and chivalry, but too much that is offbeat and dark. Fantasy, then? But this is the opposite of escapism, of sublimation in made-up worlds. If a label has to be applied it might be ‘allegorical’ yet bearings are still hard to find as the unexpected keeps occurring. In these circumstances much depends on one’s trust in the author. Is he taking me somewhere or wasting my time? Ishiguro’s track record and the limpid gravity of his prose underwrite the promise in any story of resolution. And as the point of it all finally edges into focus we begin to recognise the stealthy but impressive ambition of his work.
Perhaps the book reflects his own hybridised heritage, there being something of both Beowulf and Murakami in its straight-faced bending of the real. An old couple, Axl and Beatrice, leave their village to visit a long-lost son. The time is that period after the Romans have left when Britons and Saxons sometimes fought, sometimes lived side-by-side. Or is it? Early signs of historical accuracy are undermined by the presence of ogres, dragons and giants. Arthur is referred to as a real person, not least by one of his knights who has survived. And a curious loss of memory has settled over the land.
At first the pace feels slow, the scenes and conversations somewhat becalmed. A tone is being established, groundwork that may deter the less persevering. But as other characters are encountered the story becomes more eventful, with passages of genuine tension and dramatic power. That dream-like mood persists, however, so that we remain unsure of the writer’s intentions. Great deeds are performed with the stylised grace of figures on a frieze. We peer through the amnesia to which most have succumbed and glimpse the terrible cost of remembering. Even as it draws near the nature of the dénouement is hard to grasp, the fog slow to lift in fact and metaphorically. Then the final clash and its aftermath are described with heart-rending unaffectedness. At last what Ishiguro is writing about becomes apparent – or at least imaginable. One feels wiser, admitted to something, bereaved.