“The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro (Alfred A. Knopf, 317 pages, $26.95)
In the first paragraph of Ishiguro’s new novel, his seventh, we learn we’re in a book that combines realism with fantasy. He writes: “Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land.”
The setting is sixth or seventh-century Britain, years after King Arthur’s reign, according to legend. We meet Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who are Britons. They set out from their village to find their son, who they believe lives in another village.
On the way they meet Wistan, a Saxon warrior who has rescued a 12-year-old boy from an ogre. Later still, the four of them come across Sir Gawain, now old himself, the nephew of King Arthur. He is full of noble virtue and exhibits bravery and skill with a sword.
But this is not a typical adventure tale. This is an Ishiguro novel, which means something is going on beneath the surface of the narrative, and it’s likely sinister.
Beatrice mentions to Axl that she keeps forgetting things, saying that “this land had become cursed with a mist of forgetfulness.”
The group has run-ins with soldiers who are hunting Wistan, and they take refuge in a monastery. Axl and Beatrice have been told to seek counsel from Father Jonus.
In a conversation with him, Wistan confronts the monk about his practice of self-flagellation: “Is your Christian god one to be bribed so easily with self-inflicted pain and a few prayers? Does he care so little for justice left undone?”
As we move through the story, we learn that the “mist of forgetfulness” comes from the breath of a dragon called Querig, which both Wistan and Gawain say they are seeking to kill.
Beatrice wants to be free of this mist, but Father Jonus asks her, “Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”
Clearly, this idea of forgetting drives the story, and we’re in the land of allegory. Are we better off with amnesia, where we forget our suffering, forget our animosity toward others? Or is it better to be fully aware?
Axl says to Wistan, who is about the kill the dragon, “Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”
Those grievances are the buried giant, which the dragon’s breath had kept at bay.
Also hinted at and held at bay is some grievance between Axl and Beatrice that he fears being revealed. An added question in the novel is whether the couple will stay together once their forgetfulness goes away.
Ishiguro explored a similar theme in his previous novel, “Never Let Me Go,” which is about a group of young people who we learn are clones, bred for the purpose of providing organs for normal British citizens.
Are we just bodies awaiting death? Is there some larger purpose to our existence, or is that an illusion that helps us get by?
While such themes may be worth exploring, Ishiguro doesn’t succeed well here. Refusing to be fully realistic, with complex characters, or fully fabulist results in a flat storytelling that doesn’t engage us much.
A classic like T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” is able to give us the Arthurian magic and complex characters we care about. “The Buried Giant” is so idea-driven that it fails on both counts.
Plus, it doesn’t always maintain its logic. Why does the couple remember some things and not others? And why doesn’t it affect Wistan?
“Remains of the Day,” Ishiguro’s Booker-Prize-winning novel, is a great book. This one doesn’t measure up.
Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in North Newton.