Into the Mists

The Buried Giant: A novel BY Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf. Hardcover, 320 pages. $25.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh novel is set in a supernatural England, some years after the death of King Arthur. “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated,” goes the first sentence. There’s something deadpan in the tone: As if on being told we’d been transported to Shropshire or thereabouts in the sixth century, we’d be disappointed that we hadn’t been dropped, instead, onto the set of a Merchant Ivory production. Then there’s the matter-of-fact presentation of the ogres “still native to this land”:

Ogres were not so bad provided one did not provoke them. One had to accept that every so often, perhaps following some obscure dispute in their ranks, a creature would come blundering into a village in a terrible rage, and despite shouts and brandishings of weapons, rampage about injuring anyone slow to move out of its path. Or that every so often, an ogre might carry off a child into the mist. The people of the day had to be philosophical about such outrages.

Readers, too, will have to be philosophical, wondering why Ishiguro, a writer whose work tends to evoke subtextual tension, has decided to situate his plot within such a kitsch-ready mythological template. On page three, the narrator—who seems to live in a time closer to our own, and whose mystery is not revealed until late in the book—offers an apology of sorts: “I am sorry to paint such a picture of our country at that time, but there you are.” But I believe Ishiguro himself is unapologetic. His novels have for the last two decades frustrated expectations, and his decision to venture into the realm of legend this time is of a piece with the risks he’s been taking all along. As he’s explained many times to interviewers, the variation is a matter of maintaining his artistic vitality. After three novels connected to the experiences of Japanese and Britons before and after World War II, Ishiguro took a turn toward the indeterminate and Kafkaesque in The Unconsoled (1995); followed it with a beguiling para-detective novel in When We Were Orphans (2000); then wrote the most haunting novel of the last decade, Never Let Me Go (2005). The power of that book, a work of science fiction set in an alternate 1980s and ’90s, has a lot to do with the sense of doom that hangs over its characters, clones born to donate their organs to normal humans and thus fated to die young, and the hope they hold out even as the reader knows better. Ishiguro achieves a similar effect in The Buried Giant, but its secrets are stranger and held more closely. Until the novel’s final third, both the reader and the characters are left in the dark, their vision literally obscured by a supernatural mist.

The story opens on an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, living in a warren of shelters dug into a hillside. Not all is well for them: The village children call them names; they are forbidden the use of even a single candle; Beatrice is chastised for giving food to a wandering stranger; and she’s started to walk with a limp. Something larger is wrong. Everyone in the village seems to have lost the capacity to form or recall memories. This troubles Axl first, who can’t recall when he came to the village, whether their lives were always like this, and whether they were ever parents to children of their own. When Beatrice too comes to worry about their loss of memory (“like a sickness come over us all”), she insists they undertake a treacherous journey of several days on foot to another village to visit their son—a son Axl only pages earlier wasn’t sure they had.

A strange aspect of the amnesia afflicting the population is that only Axl and Beatrice seem to be concerned about or even aware of it. At first there are no clues around them to help them piece together a lost past, only fleeting images and episodes returning to them like dreams. Once they begin their journey they learn some frightening things: A boatman in an abandoned villa, whose memories seem to be intact, speaks of “days of war” that wrecked the civilized world he knew as a child; and an old woman bitterly explains that the boatman refused to take her with her husband to what seems to be the isle of the dead. The boatman tells Beatrice that, to be ferried together, a couple must be able to testify to their most cherished memories of each other. The past is now revealed to be a time of general trauma, and Axl and Beatrice’s very afterlife seems to be in jeopardy.

The first third of the novel proceeds slowly, as Ishiguro builds a sense of eeriness in prose that’s sturdy but at times as desolate as the landscape the couple is crossing. The dialogue is formal to the point of being deliberately stilted—Axl and Beatrice rarely refrain from addressing each other as “husband” and “princess.” It is at first wearying to spend so much time in the company of this desperate and increasingly frail couple. But Ishiguro is alive to the problem, and after the encounter with the boatman, he stops withholding The Buried Giant’s heroic elements. Axl somewhat oracularly declares: “Our memories aren’t gone for ever, just mislaid somewhere on account of this wretched mist. We’ll find them again, one by one if we have to.”

Axl and Beatrice soon arrive at a village that’s been menaced by a pair of ferocious ogres referred to as fiends: They’ve killed four men and taken a boy captive. Here the fact that the country is divided comes to the fore. Axl and Beatrice are Britons and Christian; the village is Saxon and pagan. There’s a language barrier, and a mild level of mutual suspicion. The fiends are defeated and the boy rescued by a traveling warrior named Wistan, Saxon by blood but raised by Britons and therefore able to converse with Axl. The boy, Edwin, has suffered a wound during his captivity that has aroused the superstitions of his fellow villagers. Wistan enlists Axl and Beatrice to take the boy away to a Briton village, where he’ll be free from Saxon fears. In return Wistan agrees to escort them to a monastery, where Beatrice hopes to consult a wise monk. The monks turn out to be less than virtuous.

Wistan stands out as a figure possessed of unusual confidence, apparently less afflicted by the haze of amnesia. He seems to know more than he’s letting on, and there is a hint of recognition between him and Axl. As they set out, the narrative point of view briefly shifts to the boy Edwin, who recalls the way he suffered his wound: It came not from the fiends, as the villagers had been told, but from a small, vicious creature, part serpent, part plucked chicken, with which he was trapped in a cage. It’s a mysterious detail of uncertain significance. The pace quickens and such details mount as the novel increasingly takes on the qualities of a thriller. When the party comes across a group of Briton soldiers, Wistan pretends to be a mute half-wit to elude their scrutiny. He does the same when they meet an aging knight, but then breaks from the act and identifies the knight as Gawain, “nephew of the great Arthur who once ruled these lands with such wisdom and justice.” Wistan asks Gawain if he recognizes Axl. He says he doesn’t, but the question awakens curiosity in Axl and Beatrice: Who is Wistan and what does he know?

Soon it’s disclosed that Wistan has been sent from the East to slay the she-dragon Querig. The Briton soldiers serve Lord Brennus, who seeks to capture Querig and enlist her in his campaign to conquer the Saxons. Gawain too claims to be on a mission to kill Querig, and to have been assigned the task by King Arthur himself. Wistan fells one of Brennus’s men, and the novel enters the mode of romantic adventure full-on. The monks who take in Wistan, Edwin, Axl, and Beatrice turn out to be treacherous. They betray Wistan to Lord Brennus, and send the boy and the old couple through a trapdoor the monks tell them will lead into the woods but in fact leads into an underground passage where a deadly monster awaits them. It’s Gawain who saves them, but it also turns out that he’s the one who sent Lord Brennus’s soldiers to Wistan.

It would be wrong of me to give away more of The Buried Giant’s tangled and satisfying plot. As our heroes—Axl himself turns out to be a hero, past and present, and the unveiling of his former identity is the novel’s submerged drama—make their way toward Querig the she-dragon, whose breath is the source of the mist that’s clouding the land’s memory, it’s revealed that the amnesia is the result of a spell cast to cover over a massive trauma, something like a genocide, a secret as ghastly as the fate that awaits the clones in Never Let Me Go. At the monastery Wistan speculates that the structure is actually a repurposed hill fort: “This is today a place of peace and prayer, yet you needn’t gaze so deep to find blood and terror.” In the underground passage Axl and Beatrice realize they’re walking on a floor of broken skeletons. “Here are the skulls of men, I won’t deny it,” Gawain tells them. “Beneath our soil lie the remains of old slaughter.”

The giant of the title, a shrewd reader will guess, is memory itself, and perhaps the collective memory of horror. Ishiguro’s novels dramatize quests for self-knowledge, and though The Buried Giant with its post-Arthurian trappings may be his most exotic work, at times veering toward the realm of camp fantasy, it may also be his most direct assault on the question. The mist that shrouds Axl and Beatrice’s memories isn’t a metaphor or an ideology, a missing parent or a government secret. The mistake the couple make at the start of their journey is to believe their memories will save them. When the narrator at last shows himself, he turns out to be a bit of a trickster. I’m sorry to say there’s something cruel about the novel’s final scene, but there you are.

Christian Lorentzen is an editor at the London Review of Books.