Novelists might appear to be in charge of their invented worlds, but they often have to wait a surprisingly long time to do what they want; fiction isn’t quite as malleable as it may seem. Kazuo Ishiguro – for all that tight authorial control he is associated with – is no different. For a long time, he tells me, as we sit in his Cotswolds cottage on a bright, wintry afternoon, he’s wanted one of his novels to feature a man and his horse. Now, with the publication of his seventh, The Buried Giant, he has finally had his way. “That lone rider figure has always done it for me,” he laughs.
Ishiguro’s prototype was the character familiar from the westerns he loves, the John Ford and Sam Peckinpah movies that so frequently, as in Ford’s The Searchers, open with a distant rider crossing a vast landscape, “like a self-contained little community of just a man and a horse, a lonely community that moves from place to place”. What particularly resonates with Ishiguro is the idea of a man somehow adrift from history: “There’s a real sense that there’s a whole world travelling there in that man … he’s out of time, somebody who belongs to a more violent world. And peaceful people need him when violence is needed, but he’s not really welcome in a peaceful community.”
But it was not to the American frontier that Ishiguro looked for the backdrop for his own lone rider. Instead The Buried Giant, his first novel since 2005’s Never Let Me Go, takes us back to Britain after the Romans have departed, and the Anglo-Saxons are on the brink of fully occupying the island; the moment, in other words, “when England is created”. Its horseman is none other than Sir Gawain, the youngest of King Arthur’s knights, a figure of myth and legend, of chivalry and poetry; and in Ishiguro’s imagining, now an old man responding – just like John Wayne in The Searchers or James Coburn in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – to one last call to arms. “Dressed in rusted chainmail and mounted on a weary steed”, Gawain’s “sacred mission” is to slay the she-dragon Querig.
The novel inhabits the gap in the historical record, argued over by archaeologists and historians, about what happened after the Roman occupation. The hypothesis Ishiguro brings to life is that waves of Anglo-Saxon migrants from the Germanic countries landed in the eastern part of Britain, “and at a certain point they massacred the people who were living here. There was what today we’d call ethnic cleansing – and they just vanished. The Britons, basically, were slaughtered.”
In support of this theory – another view suggests that the different groups interbred and assimilated – is that so little survives, in terms of place-names or the language that we use today, of the Romano-Celtic spoken at the time. It’s possible that it endures, in remnants, in Cornish or Welsh; that the survivors of the genocide fled to the westernmost parts of the country. By alighting on the moment before this brutal drama begins, Ishiguro captures a country on the brink of seismic change. As he puts it: “It’s not any old conflict that’s about to happen. This is the Anglo-Saxon settlement.”
It was both the uncertainty of what actually happened and the distance from contemporary events that attracted Ishiguro. His choice of setting was sparked by a reading of the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or – more accurately – a tiny moment near the beginning when Gawain, “quite a pampered guy”, has to travel between castles, in a land without comfortable inns or courtly protection, constantly being chased out of villages by wolves and up hills by ogres: “And there’s a series of all the irritating things that happened in the countryside, how freezing cold it was, and rain, nowhere to shelter, and then he gets to the other castle and the story continues. And the way these things are mentioned, particularly the ogres, as if they’re just like boars or something in a field, I suddenly got this vision of a landscape … I thought, that’s quite a fun place to put something. And things like ogres and elves could be completely banal.”
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