March 2015

Arts & Letters

Let sleeping dragons lie

By Helen Elliott
A praying knight from the Westminster Psalter, circa 1250 AD. Courtesy of the British Library
Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’

Game of Thrones tickled my views about fantasy into tolerance, but when I saw that The Buried Giant is set around 450 AD my shoulders fell. Sword fights? Chain mail? Both. But it’s OK. Kazuo Ishiguro’s choice of setting is, as expected, fastidious.

In a 2008 Paris Review interview Ishiguro revealed he was toying with ideas for a new novel and needed a time and place about which readers were uncertain but interested. The Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, set in ancient Rome, came to mind. “People see Gladiator and interpret it as a modern parable,” he said.

The fifth century, when the Romans had left Britain, the Saxons were taking over and the Celtic Britons were disappearing, was the beginning of the period we lazily call the Dark Ages. We know more about ancient Rome and ancient Egypt than we do about this period – and what little information we have is difficult to interpret. This filtering moment is the setting for The Buried Giant. What we don’t or can’t know, or remember, we – the reader and writer in finicky collaboration – imagine.

In The Buried Giant Ishiguro stretches out his hand and offers to take you into this very particular mist of time. The voice is velvet. Step through, it says, sit here beside me and I’ll tell you a tale: two old people, a journey, a knight, a boy, a king, a ferryman, a princess, a dragon. (His courtesy is deferential, his kindness alluring.) The landscape I’ll take you through will not be familiar, it might be uncomfortable, it could hold terrors, but why not take my hand? Why not journey into this mystery with me?

When writers have a moral vision the mystery is unlikely to be solvable, but at the end you might find yourself refreshed in a variety of ways.

Ishiguro is the British novelist with the Japanese name. At the age of five, he was transplanted from Japan to the UK, where his father worked as an oceanographer. He is on record about the smoothness of the cultural transition, although he says that his mother was very much a traditional Japanese women of her class and time, a woman who spoke a formal, old-fashioned Japanese used only by women. He was also deeply attached to his grandfather, who remained in Japan. Formal education is one thing, inherited sensibility another.

A sensibility of stillness infuses all Ishiguro’s novels, of which The Buried Giant is the seventh. The novels have received high acclaim, and one, The Remains of the Day, won the 1989 Booker Prize and was adapted into a film starring Emma Thompson and Hannibal Lecter. Ishiguro’s undramatic, plotless, character-based works require alertness and patience, which is perhaps why they are more widely admired than read. Yet what interests Ishiguro, as he patiently illuminates – and his work is made by the same layering that makes illuminated manuscripts – the delicate interleavings that accumulate into individual lives, are the deepest, oldest questions of life. Who are we? How did we become who we are? How should we behave? Most urgently: is it possible to change?

Axl and Beatrice live in a tight Briton community that huddles together for protection against a perilous outside world, where ogres and wolves roam. The people live in a warren dug into the side of a hill at the edge of a bog, and Axl and Beatrice, being old, have a mean room on the outer edge. Lately they have been denied the use of a candle. The community is Christian, but life is full of portents, strangeness and superstition. Kindness is a luxury. The unaccountable thing is that, as the narrator relates with his eerie placidity, “in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes.”

Mists and memory both distort perception, and the past bothers Axl. Images continually skitter through his mind in fragments he can’t pursue. He knows just one thing: the truth of his love for Beatrice and of her love for him. But he keeps returning to the same uneasy questions. Have they always lived like this? Did they ever have children? Who was the woman with the long red hair who disappeared? Who was the child whose hand he remembers holding?

One chilly morning he steals out of bed, wraps himself in Beatrice’s cloak and waits for the sun to rise. As he waits, Axl realises that it is time for them to go on the journey Beatrice has long wanted but which he, for vague reasons, has been against. Beatrice is sure they have a son in the next village, a few days’ walk away, and she believes he is waiting and eager to greet them.

So, in spring but in the autumn of their lives, this elderly couple set out on a journey to rediscover their lives. Beatrice is the guide because she has walked to this village before, trading honey and tin. She also speaks the Saxon language and acts as Axl’s translator. On the first day they have to skirt a part of the path where there is a buried giant. According to Beatrice, the burial mound is the most perilous part of their journey, although she doesn’t explain why. She instructs Axl how to walk around the grave, snapping, “Are you fully understanding me, Axl?”

Language is the tip-off in novels. Axl’s language is exquisite with formalities, Beatrice’s fluid with colloquialisms. Who were they in the unknowable past? Painless, unconscious living has been what has bound them together for the past years, and who knows if and why they chose it. The idea that experience makes us who we are can’t, at present, be applied to them, though Ishiguro, as precise about naming as he is about setting, alludes to who they might be: Axl is a Scandinavian form of the biblical Absalom, meaning “father of peace”, and Beatrice means “voyager, traveller, blessed”. Significantly, Beatrice was the name of Dante’s great love, the one who instructed him on his journey through paradise in the Divine Comedy. Beatrice, with her virtue and beauty, is the embodiment of all that is best in the world.

The Divine Comedy is an autobiography of a poet of great creative genius and a commentary on the labyrinthine Florentine politics of the period. In the 13th century, when it was written, allegory instructed Christians about their individual journey through life and beyond, and Dante believed in paradise as much as he believed in hell. Beatrice is in paradise, while Satan himself is buried, encased in ice at the centre of the Earth. The Buried Giant is also allegory, not something distant and archaic but a radiant pastiche of folklore and fantasy in which you half-recognise characters and allusions that haunt every page and play havoc with your individual mist of memory.

The Buried Giant can be read as contemporary commentary but it is also Ishiguro’s version of the Divine Comedy, taking “comedy” in the Dantean sense, to mean the astonishing journey of life, something begun in darkness and ignorance but with possibilities of enlightenment if you’re prepared to educate both your head and your heart.

Axl, with his courtesies and formalities that reflect a great beauty of soul (or a great emptiness), can’t recall who he is, or was, or how he came to be labouring alongside everyone else in the community. But Wistan, the Saxon warrior who helps them (maybe) at the outset of their journey, seems to recognise Axl. An ancient, clanking knight called Sir Gawain, nephew of the legendary King Arthur, also recognises Axl, but is silent on this matter. As for Sir Gawain, is he to be trusted? He says he is searching for the dragon who has put a mist through the world, but sometimes his actions exactly oppose his words. If you can’t trust a knight, whom might you trust on the journey? Nothing is what it seems.

Whoever Axl is, or was, his partnership with Beatrice is his compass. He never calls her anything but “princess”. And she might be a princess. She acts with all the virtues of one, and she was once so beautiful she stopped men in their tracks. Beatrice is now beyond vanity. She is sick and seeks advice, not for the pain in her body but for the pain in her heart. Beatrice has been preparing all her life for this journey. As in Dante and in any quest worth doing, everyone this tender pair meets has significance and value, offering something to jolt their memories, shared and individual.

The landscape itself also echoes the famously, shockingly visual Dante. Ishiguro’s prose, always unshowy, has never been as painterly. Watercolour is swiftly applied, and the resulting texture is a fine silken wash. This is not the benign England of hedgerows and tranquil lanes but “miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland … Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land.” As the landscape rolls out it becomes more like the inert landscape you might see plotted in the opening pages of a fantasy novel. A reader is forced to stop and reflect on what she is seeing. Every hill, boulder and grassy shade is noted, but when the dragon is finally confronted her lair turns out to be a circle, not of hell, but a quarry embarrassingly accessible.

Ishiguro suggests that living is a bit more intricate than the sound bite bequeathed to the 20th century by George Santayana: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Not only are our personal memories very selective, but, as Ishiguro said in that Paris Review interview: “The way an individual remembers and forgets is quite different to the way a society does. When is it better to just forget?”

The Buried Giant leads you through all these questions and conundrums and it does end in a clearing of sorts. Well, a clearing by an unnamed river. The narrator, finally identified, remarks that we are just part of the “ancient procession”. Plato thought that life was a search for the meaning of good, but this search gets more difficult as one gets older and more experienced. Forgetfulness and distraction are tempting, and indeed might be bliss. What is inescapable is that in the end we all confront the ferryman; in fact, he has been shadowing us all along. Ishiguro, in this absorbing, tender, forgiving novel, hints that how we manage the finale might depend on the quality of the search in which “black shadows make part of its whole”.

A few years ago, Ishiguro remarked that novelists have always done their best work by the time they reach 40. The Buried Giant puts that theory to bed with some finality.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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