Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel is set in 5th- or maybe 6th-century Britain, in a world where Britons and Saxons live in an uneasy peace after the death of Arthur, and ogres, fairies and dragons are all very real threats. The story follows the journey of an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village to set out and see their son, accumulating a group of misfit characters along the way. Axl and Beatrice’s journey is complicated by the mist that covers the land, robbing people of their memories.
I realise the setting of The Buried Giant is only nominally historical, but let’s talk about it anyway. And only partly because I started reading it because I was told “it’s set in the middle ages.”
Like many people, Ishiguro envisions the post-Roman period as a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, its depopulated landscape strewn with ruins and inhabited by people who wear rags or rusty armour, huddled behind palisade walls or living in cramped underground warrens. I am not a specialist in this period, but I don’t think that’s where the current consensus is? The naming is also a bit … the Saxon characters are called Edwin and Wistan, which I suppose is fair enough, but the British characters are called Axl and Beatrice, which actually mainly bothered me at the beginning when I realised they were “A” and “B.”
But it’s OK, right? Because it’s all a metaphor.
(As an aside: newspaper articles have engaged in the usual middlebrow handwringing about whether this is fantasy. Even Ishiguro is quoted as wondering whether readers will “think it’s fantasy.” Of course it’s fantasy, dipshit. It’s about a dragon whose breath covers the land in a magical mist and then a rag-tag party of mismatched characters goes to slay it. You’re going to have to work hard to fit that into the middle-class adultery genre. One of these articles even said that some people defined Never Let Me Go — a novel where the main characters are clones — as science fiction. As opposed to a realistic depiction of modern life, I guess? I just hope it doesn’t get the usual “oh, now it shows fantasy can be literary” since this is basically a Gene Wolfe novel but without any of the bold imagination. But critics who think fantasy is all Terry Brooks have never read a Gene Wolfe book, I guess. Which is not a reason to dislike the book, but geez, these people.)
So our heroes wander around the landscape, encountering only and always people who have something relevant to say about the loss of their memories, and each of them has a different perspective on amnesia. Beatrice wants to remember her life and love together with Axl. Axl is afraid that if he remembers who he is, he’ll realise he’s actually not a very good person. Wistan wants memories to come back so that people can be held accountable for what they’ve done, while Gawain thinks that the past is better left buried, forgetfulness having brought peace. Etc., etc. This summary sounds a bit schematic, but it isn’t; the comparisons to the Spanish Civil War or the Yugoslavian crisis or whatever are not as blatant as they might be.
There are a lot of quite good uses of this device, like a group of people who keep doing bad things knowing that they’ll forget about them and thus never feel guilty. And it’s nice to see the usual format of Saxons as unequivocal bad guys and Britons as doomed good guys messed with.
The biggest attempt to create “period” atmosphere is the dialogue, and it’s … odd. Everyone speaks in a very verbose, roundabout kind of way, none of them ever really listening to each other, and with elements of sort of cod-Irish occasionally creeping in. It works, I think, in that it feels all odd and dithery and uncertain, which is how I think it’s meant to feel. But if it’s meant to feel “historical,” well, I dunno. Here’s an example:
“What is it you have to say, Axl, and before I’ve had time to rub the sleep from my eyes?
“We talked before, princess, about a journey we might make. Well, here’s the spring upon us, and perhaps it’s time we set off.”
“Set off, Axl? Set off when?”
“As soon as we’re able. We need only be gone a few days. The village can spare us. We’ll talk to the pastor.”
“And will we go to see our son, Axl?”
“That’s where we’ll go. To see our son.”
So there’s a hell of a lot of talking, but not a lot of saying things, which I think is intentional.
You may choose to see a clever idea in the fact that this is a book about the uncertainty and double-edgedness of history, set in a historical period that isn’t really historical at all. I’m not sure. I think the choice of a legendary period works; having the two sides be Britons and Saxons gives it a heft it wouldn’t have if they were elves and dwarfs or some other imaginary equivalent. But at the same time, it’s jarring because there are all these things that argue against it being the post-Roman period, so you keep getting snapped out of a sense of the world as real. Which obviously it isn’t, but.
So yeah; it’s about history, but although the setting has historical elements it’s a fantasy about history rather than a piece of historical fiction.