Source of book: Borrowed from the library
It is difficult to know how to describe this hauntingly sad book. On its face, it is fantasy. The setting is post-Arthurian England, with only an ancient Gawain left of Camelot. There are fantastic creatures, a dragon, and magic. But it doesn’t really read like fantasy.
On another level, it is a parable - and a pretty chilling one at that. It is also a love story of sorts. And a story of lost and broken love. It is a quest. But one for which the goals are not revealed until the end, and even then, answers are lingering in the mist, rather than crystal clear.
Axl and Beatrice are two elderly Britons, married for a long time, but unable to remember their past. And it isn’t just them. The entire country appears lost in this mist of forgetfulness, with only the occasional memory peeking through the dark.
They set off on a modest quest: to find their son, who lives somewhere in a village...in that direction. Soon, they meet up with a mysterious Saxon warrior, Wistan, and a boy, Edwin, rejected by his village because of his dragon-bite wound. They too are on a quest, but Wistan isn’t about to disclose it. Sir Gawain too has a quest - to kill a dragon whose breath appears to be causing the mental mist.
As events unfold, it appears that, somewhere lost in memory, Gawain, Axl, and Wistan have met before, but nobody can remember why or how.
I’m hesitant to say much more, because it would spoil the twists and turns.
I do, however, want to talk about the underlying theme. Forgetfulness in this book isn’t merely personal. It is collective, and it is an intended forgetfulness. Britain is a society which has forgotten its bloody origins. The mist obscures the memories, but the bones are (literally in this book), lurking just below the surface of those beautiful green meadows.
But don’t think this is just about Britain. If we look back far enough, each and every one of us has a genocide in our background somewhere. It is the sad reality of the human race: we are vicious and violent. One of the things that has struck me about the stories in the Old Testament is just how much genocide was considered normal in those days. But then, when you think about it, when has genocide not been considered normal. Pretty much just the last couple hundred years, at least in Enlightenment theory? But our own American history starts with a genocide, and even right now, too many of my white countrymen seem all too comfortable with ethnic cleansing. This is us, alas. The human instinct toward tribalism, hatred, and violence, that we struggle to shake even as the best of us try to transcend. But even as we do, it is impossible to entirely forget the foundation of bones on which we rest.
This is the chilling core of the book. As any historian of this period could tell you, the post-Arthurian period (whether or not Arthur existed as a person is a different matter) was the beginning of a series of bloody conquests of the British Isles, in which the culture of the Britons was largely buried along with their bones. Each wave of conquerors would yield to another in time, until the island, like its language, would become a hodgepodge of its history.
Kazuo Ishiguro is best known for The Remains of the Day. I must confess, I have never read that book - or anything else by Ishiguro. I rather suspect this book is a bit uncharacteristic. However, the writing is beautiful and evocative. My one complaint is that the plot seems to meander, and the individual incidents are not always clearly related to the theme and plot - or perhaps, I missed some of the connections, which is possible. This is one haunting story, though, and I suspect it will stay with me.