[This is a journal in four sections, based on the novel’s four parts. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I reached the end.]
14 April 2015
This long section, covering more than the first third of the novel, establishes a lot of things. Five chapters take two ageing Britons, in or around a mythologised Sixth Century, on two gruelling days’ walk from their ‘warren-like’ settlement into Saxon territory. This would normally be perfectly safe, the Britons and Saxons having lived peaceably together for years, but some things have changed. Even before the novel opens a strange mist has come to be associated with a kind of collective amnesia, so that everybody’s medium- and short-term memories seem to have almost disappeared. Axl and the wife he always calls ‘princess’, Beatrice, seem to be the only ones in their little village to resent their memory loss, and to talk about it. Axl spends a long night coming to a decision. In the hours before dawn, he is not quite sure that he can remember being with his little son, years ago. When he speaks to Beatrice she reminds him that they had a son who left a long time ago, and that they had planned to seek him out in his new village some day’s walk away. Axl’s decision is that they will do this, after Beatrice had asked him to consider it following a conversation with one of the wandering old women who seem to be common in this world.
Outside their village there are other terrors. Ishiguro presents Sixth Century superstitions as fact, so that ‘the Great Plain’ must only be crossed at noon and ogres and dragons are regarded as real dangers. So far these creatures have remained offstage, but that doesn’t mean we won’t meet them eventually. And it turns out that Wistan, the Saxon fighter that Axl and Beatrice team up with, has been sent to kill one of the dragons to prevent it being captured and trained as a kind of WMD for the king of the local Britons. But Ishiguro is careful to keep details as realistic as if he were writing a historical novel. Only one definitively fantastical thing has happened so far: when Wistan kills one of the local king’s men, a serpent emerges from under the lifeless body and, as it reaches an obstacle, it splits in two like a stream around it before coming back together. Amongst reviewers the fantasy elements have led to a lot of discussion about genre that I’ve done my best to avoid.
Even before they begin their journey, we get hints that Axl and Beatrice led more interesting lives in the past than they do now. They live in a slum, have recently been forbidden to use candles – we never have found out why – and are sure that things weren’t always like this. Outside, Axl begins to have little epiphanies (or near-epiphanies) that begin to convince him he used to be somebody. As he sees more of Wistan in action, he recognises little things like the way he wears a sword so that it’s in just the right place to reach quickly. In the fight with the king’s man, he can judge merely from the way the two men position themselves that Wistan is clearly going to win. And people recognise Axl. Wistan, the first time he ever sees him, can’t help staring. Sir Gawain – yes, the Sir Gawain – looks surprised to the point of shock, but denies ever having seen him before. We seem to be on the well-trodden ground familiar from the Bourne franchise and Total Recall. This is a world where disguise is often a life-saver – Wistan has had to pose as an idiot to get past a group of the king’s soldiers – and we wonder what has led to Axl having been disguised so thoroughly even he doesn’t know who he is.
But I’m not telling you the plot. The journey, unsurprisingly, is like the wanderings of Ulysses or Theseus. Axl and Beatrice’s first encounter is with a ferryman who keeps returning to a ruined Roman villa – he can remember when it was complete – and the old woman who torments him. She resents the way the ferryman took her husband to the island they both wanted to reach, but not her – so she takes her revenge by slaughtering rabbits inside the ruins whenever he is there. I don’t know what Charon is doing in Sixth Century Britain, or why Ishiguro has set a new theme going: the ferryman stipulates that only those married couples who retain the same good memories qualify for being taken together. Ok. Does this have anything to do with Lethe? And what does any of it have to do with the amnesia-inducing mist…?
They meet Wistan at the Saxon village Beatrice is familiar with from trading visits. By chance – i.e. Ishiguro isn’t too worried about plausibility – he, like them, has arrived at a moment of crisis. Two ogres have captured a boy, and a search-party has already been overwhelmed. The village, now and later, seems to contain only cowards. An elder remembers when it wasn’t like this, and the reader wonders if the men’s uselessness – those accompanying Wistan against the ogres later ‘soil themselves’ according to the elder – is a new thing, like the amnesia. Nobody seems quite to know how to behave any more, and Axl and Beatrice are almost set upon by men who are supposed to be keeping watch.
Wistan defeats the ogres, if that’s what they are, and brings back the arm and shoulder of one of them. (Elements of the Beowulf story? Has he defeated Grendel?) He brings back the boy they’ve taken, who is later presented as a hero in waiting. A former fighter in the village, now crippled, has seen something unusual in his calmness under stress. But there’s a problem: he seems to have received a bite, and for the superstitious Saxons this means he will turn into a demon himself. Wistan decides to rescue him, with Axl and Beatrice’s help. He accompanies them all as they continue their journey. We later find out that Wistan’s real motive for getting Axl involved is because he is curious about this man he recognises from a past that he can’t remember.
They are making a detour up a difficult mountain path, because Beatrice wants to visit a monastery where she might receive treatment for a pain she has in her side, beneath the ribcage. Her way of constantly downplaying the seriousness of it with Axl tells us that it’s serious. Ok. This is when they encounter the soldiers, then Sir Gawain – he’s a cross between Don Quixote and the old knight in Through the Looking-Glass – and Wistan has to outwit the soldier in order to fight him. Gawain’s quest, which has taken so many years that Wistan is gently sarcastic about it, is to kill the same she-dragon that Wistan has been charged to get rid of. He doesn’t like the arrival of a new challenger, but is gracious enough about it not to try to stop him. How could he, with his rusty armour and clapped-out horse? And what is the role of Edwin going to be? He’s an important character, having been at the centre of the only chapter not narrated from Axl’s point of view and now being groomed for warrior status by Wistan, the only proper hero we’ve encountered so far.
What’s going on? Is Ishiguro going to stick with the archetypal narrative elements, the epic journey and the heroic quest? And if so, how are places like the terrifying Great Plain and creatures from fantasy going to mesh with the ultra-realistic depiction of Sixth Century life, the power games of warlords and the smells of putrefying flesh and of the entrails of a dying man? Or is all this a kind of smokescreen to mask Ishiguro’s real concern, the nature of love? Axl and Beatrice have an almost implausibly affectionate way of speaking to one another, but they worry whether they would pass the ferryman’s impossible-seeming test. Can love be defined by what we remember? Can anything about us? Identity, the purpose of existence – everything that makes it worth being alive?
It’s time to read on.
The journey almost comes to a full stop, and most of Part 2 takes place in the monastery. But the narrative seems to be deliberately restless, starting in the middle of the following night they are spending there before constantly back-tracking. At first this is by way of Axl’s sleepless thoughts so that the reader, eventually, can catch up. We’re more than half-way through Part 2 before the story can move on and, again, a lot of what we learn comes by way of flashbacks. Inevitably, perhaps, it takes some time before we learn of Gawain’s ambiguous role in their fates, and of Wistan’s preparations for his own escape. It’s only in the last few pages that we learn, through the boy Edwin’s re-living of it later, exactly how the warrior has managed to use the monastery’s own architectural features against his enemies. It had clearly once been a fortress and, in best mentor question-and-answer fashion, Wistan had been able get the boy to understand how the monastery’s stone tower could be used in hand-to-hand fighting. Before this, the action has moved forward just far enough to show us the escape of the old Britons and Edwin, by way of – wait for it – a secret tunnel guarded by a monster. They are all out by the end, but the band has been split up. Axl, Beatrice and Edwin have been saved by Gawain, but the boy has now gone back to try to meet up with Wistan again.
The monastery almost becomes a symbol in itself. Just as it hadn’t always been a monastery, Axl clearly wasn’t always a peasant – there are more of those revealing little epiphanies – and beneath the peaceful surface of life under the Romans lie some dark truths about the way things really operate. The reader is not unlike Axl, who finds it hard to come to terms with the evidence of the monastery’s previous purpose that Wistan presents him with. The now peaceful courtyard would once have been the scene of massacres as the besieged Saxon occupants would have used the inner gate built for the purpose to trap cohorts of attacking troops. They would have known that they were only buying time before the inevitable overrunning of the building, but even women and children would gleefully have watched the butchery. It would have felt like revenge for the atrocities that would soon be perpetrated against them.
This is Wistan’s grim vision, and Axl eventually gives up trying to offer less bloodcurdling interpretations. Later, he tries to disbelieve Wistan’s explanation of the purpose of a gibbet-like contraption apparently designed to subject a living man to the attacks of predatory birds. But the feathers and dried blood all over it can’t be explained away, and Axl and the others have already met a victim of the infernal machine. Father Jonus, the monk with the reputation as a healer that Beatrice has been seeking out, lies half-dead from his wounds.
In fact, almost whenever a motive seems altruistic or at worst harmless, it turns out not to be. At the end of Part 1, Gawain had seemed grudgingly to accept that he couldn’t change Wistan’s mind about his quest to kill the she-dragon. But secretly he has come to the monastery to warn the monks, and therefore to alert the local king, that a dangerous man is in their midst. (Wistan, clearly well attuned to such matters, is expecting this. His incessant cutting of firewood for the monks is nothing of the kind: it is fuel for the fire-trap in the tower that he explains to Edwin.) Gawain’s motives don’t appear to be simply treacherous. He believes his own propaganda about his role as an honourable knight, and saves the Britons in the tunnel that the monks have pretended is a safe escape route. Tribal loyalty – Wistan is a Saxon, of course – and his own promise to Arthur that he would be the one to kill the dragon seem to have become muddled in Gawain’s mind.
I’m beginning to wonder whether Ishiguro is scrutinising the motives of honourable-seeming men in times of conflict. How to act for the best? As Gawain tries to pick his way through the confusion, so do the monks. They are Christians in a world in which, to the actions of ambitious men like the local king, can be added the havoc wreaked by monsters. Up to now, they have done their best to seek atonement through the mortification of the flesh. But their hideous contraption, designed when birds would merely peck, has become a suicide machine as monstrous new breeds now tear and gouge. Several monks have been killed, which wasn’t the idea at all – and the amnesia-inducing mist which, Jonus tells them, is produced by the dragon, is not going away. The abbot, perhaps thinking that he is acting for the best, alerts the king’s soldiers, and Wistan only escapes because he is a better strategist than any of them. Before this, a monk who had seemed kindly shows the others to the deadly tunnel before noisily sealing the trapdoor behind them.
Anything else? In amongst all the other fudges and half-truths is Jonus’s diagnosis of the pain in Beatrice’s side. On his sick-bed, he asks her questions and smilingly offers reassurance. This scene, like so many others, appears in Axl’s memories of the day as he fails to get to sleep, and he wonders how the monk can still smile when Beatrice’s answer to one question confirms that yes, sometimes there is blood in her urine. Why did the monk tell her that she definitely had nothing to worry about? Beatrice is glad to believe him, but Axl is troubled. And, as so often, so is the reader. We have learnt long before this how Ishiguro likes to hide more than he reveals.
Something else. Edwin’s bite, according to somebody, is from a dragon. This means he will soon want to mate with a dragon, and vice versa. It might account for some otherwise inexplicable behaviour of his: he had intended to stay and fight alongside Wistan, but instead had found himself irresistibly drawn to the tunnel. Later, he thinks he had heard the call of his mother, missing for a long time and, the reader assumes, probably dead. (He had lived with an aunt in the Saxon village.) He has heard her voice often before, and… and what? In this world that isn’t ours, is the voice somehow real, another fantasy element being thrown into the mix? Or, like Axl and Beatrice’s frequent references to how their son is expecting them – something for which, of course, there is no evidence at all – is Ishiguro telling us something about the psychological needs of people who have suffered a great loss?
We are now following three different journeys. Gawain confides in his only companion, Horace the horse – I’m not making this up – and Part 3 is bookended by his ‘Reveries’, chapters he narrates. Edwin finds the wounded Wistan and deceives him about his real motive, pretending he is only interested in finding the dragon. But, once he has remembered what it was he was lying about, he feels bound to confess that he is really looking for his mother. He seems to be leading them in the right direction anyway – perhaps that bite really is making him seek out a dragon mate.
Meanwhile, Axl and Beatrice are having a tortuous time. Beatrice is still sure of the welcome their son will give them, although Axl is becoming more and more uneasy about what their memories will reveal if ever the dragon’s amnesiac influence is removed. Near the end of this section, he asks Beatrice to promise him that she will still love him as she does now, whatever it is that he has done in the past. Meanwhile Gawain, as we have guessed, vividly remembers the younger Axl, then known as Axelus or something similar. He was never a soldier, but he seems to have been a mediator for Arthur and, in Gawain’s memory, seems proud of the peace that has come no matter what the cost. Both Gawain and Wistan, from different sides of the ethnic divide, have vivid memories of why Arthur might have needed the best spin-doctor in the world. The Britons were guilty of a kind of ethnic cleansing, and Wistan, all these years later, makes Edwin vow always to hate all Britons.
All of them are finding their way to the same spot. Gawain is seeking it, but his journey is made troublesome by his meeting with something like fifteen old widows in rags. They taunt him with his failure to kill the dragon, and with his guilt over the deaths of their husbands. This isn’t the only time in this section when people or creatures are like projections of the main characters’ thoughts. If the old women are Gawain’s guilty conscience, he tries his best to turn his back on them, literally. They throw mud at the retreating figures of both him and his horse, and he muses on the case for his own defence. Hasn’t he been a good Christian, always serving God? Didn’t he rescue the old couple from the self-serving abbot? Maybe so, but he has lost count of how many men he has killed, and he remembers those taunts….
He also remembers Axl, and how he had always had the knack of remaining calm even with arrows flying. He is the one who blithely presents the case for Arthur’s conduct of the old war against the Saxons. It has led to peace, hasn’t it? Maybe so, but when he has those growing misgivings later about his own past conduct, we remember the details of those massacres. The Britons had solemnly promised that the women and children would be safe, then went through the Saxon villages murdering everybody. Now I’m beginning to wonder if Ishiguro wants us to think of the atrocities there have been, on several continents, in the past 25 years or so. If so, he’s doing it very obliquely. All that seems clear is that in his invented world, as in our own, good and evil are never absolutes.
So how do we take Wistan’s insistence that Edwin must swear to avenge the atrocities of the Britons? Before this, he had seemed like a conventional hero, so I suppose I should have been ready for a sign that he’s as stuck in his own barren mind-set. Having seemed daringly resolute, he now seems merely obsessive. The only good Briton, it seems, is a dead Briton. Unless, of course, they are useful. (I’ve forgotten now what his motive was for letting Axl and Beatrice tag along with him, but it couldn’t have been altruistic.) Now, with one section of the novel remaining, it looks as though things might not go his way. Gawain might look like a rusty old has-been, but he’s spotted a weakness in Wistan’s fighting technique (a gap in his defences on the left side, apparently) and we saw from his dispatching of the dog-monster that the old knight still knows how to use a sword.
Which leaves Axl and Beatrice, who have been having their own adventures. Beatrice is becoming weaker, and they seek help from a seemingly friendly boatman who floats them downriver in two coracles fastened together. It’s hard not to think of that other boatman they met earlier, and their hazardous foray on to the water feels as symbolic as anything we’ve encountered so far. They drift, become trapped in reeds – and then Axl sees a boat. He reaches it, and it contains – what? A woman he at first takes for a bunch of rags, the owner (bear with me) of a rusty old hoe with which she has failed to beat off the swarm of pixies that torment her. The hoe doesn’t rouse any memories for Axl, but it does for the reader: in that vivid memory that Gawain has of him, there was a young woman who got them to help her goad and then kill a wounded Saxon on the battlefield. Her weapon was a hoe… but don’t ask me what she now represents in the rags of memories that are trying to reassemble themselves in Axl’s mind. A voice – it might be her or the pixies speaking – tells him to forget ‘her’, and he realises they mean Beatrice. He only just manages to get back to her and get her back on to dry land.
Axl and Beatrice have another encounter, told in that familiar flashback style. They are climbing another mountain through a blasting wind, and… they have a goat with them. This turns out to have been prepared as deadly bait for the dragon, having been fed poisoned leaves which, we have seen, are enough to make an ogre very ill indeed: he ate the owners’ other goat two days ago, and has been writhing at the bottom of a ditch ever since. Three children are responsible for this plan. They tell Axl and Beatrice that their parents have forgotten them and gone away, and a different woman has told them about the leaves. Maybe if the dragon is killed their parents will remember them and come back? Axl will have nothing to do with it – the oldest girl’s suggestion that the dragon’s lair is only ‘a stroll’ away is clearly a lie – but Beatrice persuades him, and here they are. They do their best to shelter from the wind next to some standing stones that look like an old couple leaning towards each other….
All the travellers now seem to have reached the same unexpected copse of trees in a hollow on the hillside. The trees surround a pond – more shades of Grendel and his mother’s lair – and Edwin, when he first gets there with Wistan, points out the corpses of three ogres he sees across the ice. They seem to have become frozen to death as they leaned in to drink… and Wistan can’t see them. Ok. Later, when Gawain arrives (it might not actually be later, as these stories progress along different time-lines) he sees three fallen trees, not the bodies of ogres. And…
…it seems feasible to wonder to what extent Ishiguro is playing some kind of Postmodernist game with the fantasy elements. Edwin sees three dead ogres, but nobody else does. (Wistan, monomaniac Wistan, sees nothing.) Axl sees a boat carrying a woman with a hoe, and is nearly overwhelmed by pixies that urge him to forget Beatrice, possibly in favour of this woman he met decades before. Gawain meets a crowd of widows of men he has killed…. The tropes of fantasy tales – the journey, the ogres, the dragons, to say nothing of a strange mist that buries good memories along with what Axl fears are the bad – seem to be projections of these characters’ deepest fears. But then, any fantasy world constructed by a writer like Ishiguro was never going to be straightforward.
Part 4 – to the end
Given all the clues that Ishiguro has been strewing around regarding the nature of this novel, the final section is almost predictable. I say almost, because I didn’t guess exactly where it was going – but once there, it seems impossible for it to have gone anywhere else. After Gawain bows to historical inevitability and is killed by Wistan in a fight they both know they must have, and after the she-dragon of forgetfulness is killed without ceremony, Axl and Beatrice meet the boatman again. He’s the one I called Charon after his appearance in Part 1, and… and what? He plays his usual trick on them, assuring Axl that he has definitely learnt enough about their love to be able to make a return journey to pick him up, and ferries Beatrice away to the island. The end. The journey at the core of the novel is exactly what it always seemed to be – the journey everyone makes that always ends in death.
And it isn’t quite enough. From the start, there’s been something half-hearted about the mythologised world that Ishiguro has invented. Monsters are rarely centre-stage, and if they do make an appearance Ishiguro has nothing very interesting to say about them. As often as not, as with those widows Gawain encounters or the pixies that appear to swarm over Beatrice in her little boat, it’s easier to interpret them as projections or symbols than as living creatures. The ogre poisoned by the children in Part 3 is a shadowy figure in a ditch. The dragon, when they finally encounter it, is a sickly, emaciated creature that Wistan is able to kill without a fight.
I suppose this could be taken as a message from the author himself: the age of Arthurian myth is over – Gawain was Arthur’s knight, and the dragon’s amnesiac power derived from a spell cast by Merlin in order to make everyone forget the atrocities of the past – and the age of hard reality is about to take its place. Wistan is forthright about it. When the Saxons remember the broken promises made by the Britons’ supposedly honourable king, they will rise up against them and drive them out of what was once their own land. He has nothing against Axl and Beatrice personally, but warns them they had better get as far away as they can before the fighting starts. He intnds to carry on the work he’s started, inculcating a purer hatred in young Edwin than he is able to feel himself. Get them while they’re young….
Ever since Ishiguro began to hint at race hatred and ethnic cleansing (in Part 2, I think), it has all seemed horribly familiar. The reader – this reader, anyway – inevitably looks for parallels with our own time. There have been enough near-genocides, even within living memory, for them to outnumber those occasions when reconciliation follows the revelation of hidden truths. (Only South Africa and Northern Ireland come to mind among the latter.) I think it becomes problematic when the reader, puzzling out what different characters represent, loses interest in them as characters. Gawain is, literally, the clapped-out old guard, perpetuating a lie. (His mission, if we hadn’t guessed, is to ensure that the dragon lives on.) Wistan comes to represent intolerance, willing to turn the young into weapons against a perceived enemy. Ah, we think, the Islamist mullahs who send children on suicide missions.
It becomes even more problematic when we start to unpack what Merlin’s spell of forgetfulness is supposed to represent. Axl, who has slowly begun to remember his own role as Arthur’s spin-doctor, is stuck with the unsatisfactory bargaining position of doggedly re-stating that decades of peace prove that Merlin’s spell has been justified. He can’t win, obviously, because the loss of memory takes away almost everything that makes us human – and Axl himself wants the dragon dead. Unfortunately, when the alternative is remembering, that means remembering how to hate. The debate is never about how to respond justly to a war crime, but about hating all Britons. This might work in the Sixth Century world of Ishiguro’s invention, but if he is going to set off all those sparks of recognition, he needs to make the choices more complex. Wistan, immune from the spell, sees it in black and white: live a sedated life, or take revenge. And Ishiguro isn’t offering anything else.
So it’s no surprise when, in the final chapter, Ishiguro leaves this highly unsatisfactory outcome to one side and gets back to the real point of the journey. The narrator is the boatman himself, and he describes how, despite the engaging conversations he has with Axl and Beatrice, he is bound to do his duty. With a few tweaks this chapter could become a rather moving short story in itself, about remembering and forgetting. This old couple remember what they need to remember, do not pretend there was never any discord, and imagine that death will not have to be a separation. They look forward to being reunited with the son who, they now remember, has been waiting on the island since an outbreak of plague took him there shortly after he left their village. But Axl knows, and the last line is one of the best in the novel. As the boatman takes Beatrice across, he sees Axl, who had waded out for some distance, making his way back towards land. ‘Wait for me on the shore, friend, I say quietly, but he does not hear and he wades on.’
As F Scott Fitzgerald puts it in a different novel about remembering and forgetting, ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’