by Kazuo Ishiguro
How do you like your metaphors? Thinly veiled fairy tales with a heavy moral? Buried deep, within a mythical time and place? How much work are you willing to do, as a reader, to tease out the metaphorical relation a story may have to the reality that surrounds us, or exists within our history? It may depend upon how literal-minded you are, how patient you are with the exercises through which the writer wants to draw the reader.
This peculiarly engrossing novel takes place in the years after the reign of King Arthur (whose existence, of course, is still hotly debated, though it seems he was more mythical than historical), in the early 6th century, a period for which very little documentary evidence exists, but which is widely understood to have been relatively peaceful. That much is known, and it is that which the author explores here. Why, in the wake of a mythological king and the battles he waged, was there a long period of quiet and peace? Were people just exhausted? Was the population depleted? What happened to their warlike nature?
Ishiguro engages us in an experiment in imagination. Imagine a time in which Arthur exists in living memory; Roman ruins aren't mere archeological digs, but real artefacts of the landscape; Britain is divided amongst tribes, mostly the Britons and Saxons; and a verdant pastoral landscape in which mysterious and mystical events and beings are still taken for granted. Now, there are many sword & sorcery fantasy novels that explore this territory, some more historically minded than others. Ishiguro approaches this place and time with a literary sensibility, a sensitivity to the reality of a life unfamiliar to modern readers, and a moving character-driven story that allows us to sense what it may have been like.
We meet Axl and Beatrice, an older couple living in a rabbit-warren of a village, dug into a hillside, and surviving on subsistence agriculture. It is a brutal and dank existence. Over the whole landscape, a mysterious mist hangs, a mist which impairs the memory, causing people to forget even the most important things happening in their lives, recent and distant. So, we're given to expect that Axl and Beatrice may have some forgotten secrets. They do remember they've had a son, and that son is now absent. They presume he lives in a nearby village, but they can't be certain. They set out on foot, on English roads populated by villains, knights errant, creepy monks and ferrymen, and even ogres, fairies, sprites and dragons. Their adventures are somber, indeed the whole mood of the book is somber. There are mysteries and magical revelations, and there is a slow unfolding of what has happened here. Can our heroes, once they've fallen in with the aging nephew of King Arthur, Sir Gawain, actually find a way to dissipate the mist, bring back memory, and reveal people's minds once again for the brutally rational and inherently violent things that they are?
And here is where the reader may detect the opening of the metaphor. For what is memory but a litany of loves and hates, regrets and pleasures? Is there something to be said for blissful forgetfulness? Can we forget our prejudices and hatreds and live in peace, even at the cost of living like quiet animals, hibernating in the hills and rooting around for our sustenance? These are interesting questions in this idiosyncratic and highly imaginitive novel.
(Ishiguro was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.)
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Also by Ishiguro: [Never Let Me Go]