[Chapter 1 – opening lines]
You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby – one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots – might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist. But such monsters were not cause for astonishment. People then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much else to worry about. How to get food out of the hard ground; how not to run out of firewood; how to stop the sickness that could kill a dozen pigs in a single day and produce green rashes on the cheeks of children.
commentary: I’ve liked other books by Kazuo Ishiguro a lot, particularly Never Let Me Go, but had my doubts about this one: it is set in the Dark Ages in England (sometime after the Romans left, in the first millennium of the Common Era) but in a world of some fantasy with ogres and dragons.
An old couple, Axl and Beatrice, are unhappy in the place where they live (I’d never have thought I would mind so much that they are not allowed a candle, but I did) and decide to travel to see their son, even though they don’t seem to be able to remember much about him. Along the way they encounter many other people, joining forces with some of them. They stay in a monastery, they encounter a boatman, they wondered about a journey to an island. Another character is Gawain, from the chivalric romance about one of Arthur’s knights. There is trouble between Britons and Saxons.
The book is plainly jam-packed with references to myths and legends and English literature, and I’m sure I missed half of them. But I still enjoyed it hugely in a way that is hard to explain. The book had a hypnotic effect, almost hallucinatory, as you lived through the journeys and encounters.
The book came out last year to very mixed reviews – some people hated it, with its stately language and inexplicable happenings. There are plenty of articles out there about it, and interviews with Ishiguro, and I found reading them helpful after I’d finished the book.
It seems that the point of his story (as with many of his books) is the importance of memory and forgetting – he says in this interview that
the starting point was something like: ‘There’s a whole society where people are suffering some sort of collective, and strangely selective, amnesia.’… if I had to write the next line of the summary, it would be, ‘There’s a couple who fears that without their shared memory, their love will vanish.’ And then the third line would be that the nation around them is in some kind of strange tense peace.I don’t think I truly understood all of the book, and I’m not doing a great job of explaining what was so good about it. All I can say is, don’t necessarily be put off by the trappings of it. I could not be less of a Tolkien/Game of Thrones reader, but that didn’t matter at all.
The picture of a Saxon settlement is from an American textbook of history.
Gawain and the knight from a 1910 book of chivalry.
The dragon is an Apocalyptic one from a book in the Princeton Theological Seminary Library.