Editor’s note: Hope Whitmore’s interview with novelist Kazuo Ishiguro — who was just announced as the 2017 Nobel Laureate in Literature — was originally posted in the B&N Review on March 3, 2015.
Some novels are magic — not in what they represent, but what they do. They seep into your consciousness and seem to change not only the way you view the world around you, but the incidents that happen within that world. Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, The Buried Giant is such a novel. Reading my advance copy, I found strange things happening. While reading a book about reconnecting with the past I found fragments of my own past all about me.
Reading the book in a coffee shop, I met my old English professor, someone I had not seen for many years but remembered fondly. Later, as I read the novel on the Megabus to London, the coach veered off its usual course along the East Coast, and I looked up to find myself being driven past Kirkby Lonsdale, the small Lancashire town where I had grown up.
The Buried Giant, set in what Ishiguro calls a never-never land resembling an ancient Britain of knights and dragons, is about things we forget, a past we have left behind which is about to reawaken. Remembering the forgotten thing will profoundly alter the world but remembering is also personal, and the book, like so much of Ishiguro’s work, is imbued with a tantalizing, unsettling sense of something missing.
Kazuo Ishiguro opened the door to his London home and welcomed me in from the dreary January afternoon, expressing concern over whether I had been rained on.
He led me through the dining room, where new books lay on the table, including a pristine copy of The Illuminations, the new novel by Andrew O’Hagan. I was led through to a living room, where the shelves were stacked with DVDs. These included a shelf of postwar French movies, which Ishiguro and his wife, Lorna, are interested in, he told me, not only because they’re enjoyable just as films but also for what they reveal about France after the war.
The chairs were the color of orange juice, and he invited me to take one, asking if I minded a chair with a hard back. Lorna offered me cushions before telling me to “have as many biscuits as you like, because otherwise he’ll eat them all.”
Then she left the room, and Ishiguro and I were facing one another. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Hope Whitmore
The Barnes & Noble Review: The Buried Giant is very much about an old England, an England in the distant past, with knights and ogres and slaying a dragon. Why this setting?
Kazuo Ishiguro: I find that my themes remain very similar, but I like to change the periods in which they are set, and the genre, and I think that’s because I like to start out with the sort of issues or questions that my novel is going to address — it’s almost like location hunting for filmmakers.
I wanted this story to be about a world where people had lost their memories in patches, how whole societies remember or forget and how individuals suppress memory and struggle with remembering or forgetting, but every time I thought about somewhere I wanted the novel to be set I started thinking about Yugoslavia as it broke up and descended into civil war in the 1990s, or France immediately after the Second World War. They (the French) spent most of the war collaborating with the Nazis and being occupied, and in every small village someone did betray someone, and afterward they had to forget and pretend they were all brave resistance fighters. There was a kind of unspoken agreement. “Let’s not go there. Let’s suppress our memory so we don’t fall apart and fall into fighting and disintegration or communism.”
But I wanted it to be more like a historical never-never land, so that it could be applied to all kinds of settings.
BNR: Why medieval England in particular?
KI: Well, what it was, there’s a poem. You know Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — it’s an anonymous poem?
BNR: Where the Green Knight has his head cut off?
KI: That’s right. There’s a bit in Camelot at the beginning where a strange Green Knight turns up in the middle of the Christmas festivities and sets a challenge to Gawain, “We’ll take turns to take a swing with swords at one another’s heads and you can have the first swing, and you can try and chop my head off and if you chop my head off you’ve won, but if for some reason you fail then I get to chop your head off.”
Gawain has first go, and he manages to cut the Green Knight’s head off, so he thinks he’s won, but unfortunately the Green Knight is supernatural, so the head starts to talk and says, “OK, now it’s my turn, I get to take a swing at your head, but as you’re having a Christmas festival right now. I’ll give you a special concession, you come and find me in a year’s time at my castle and I can take a swing at you.”
But what inspired me was just a tiny passage about what England was like at that time. Most of the story takes place in these castles; luxurious, palatial castles, but there’s a tiny bit about — well, I shouldn’t say England, I should say Britain, because it wasn’t England yet — there was a bit about what Britain was like at that point, and its just eight lines or thereabouts, but it says he had a terrible time because there were no inns in those days, because obviously the poet is projecting back centuries as well, he says there were no inns or anything and he had to sleep on rocks in the storm, and sometimes he’d try to get food at a village and he’d be chased away by ogres, and you know, he’ll be woken up by wolves attacking him when he was sleeping on a snowy bit of ground, and it was awful; then he finds this castle and the journey continues.
What struck me was this little description, and I thought actually that might be a really good setting, that it might be what I’d been looking for. I really liked the matter-of-fact way that ogres were mentioned — it was like farm bulls or street dogs that might bite you, it’s at that kind of level.
BNR: It’s a superstitious world as well.
KI: In this world [the world of the book] people naturally believe in God — they’re not quite sure what kind of God it is, but they don’t doubt there’s a God and that’s second nature. Some of that we still have. So we don’t call that superstition. You know, if it was what people believed I respected it and allowed it to be real in the world.
I thought, if a person of that time believed in something, in my fictional world I’d let it exist for real. Now that was my rule, but I wouldn’t create something weird that people wouldn’t normally believe in. So a flying saucer wouldn’t land in that world, because that’s not in the imaginary limits of the people. But a belief in spirits — or ogres or dragons or pixies out there in the wild — most people would have half believed or really believed things like that, so I thought in my fictional world I’d let it literally exist. So it is sort of a fantastical world, but it’s not a free-for-all. It’s not a world where anything could exist. It’s superstitious if you like but it’s the superstitions that you know, have existed, that’s how I did it.
I was saying, it should be called Britain rather than England because in the book, the Anglo-Saxons, who’ve been landing in and settling in this country, will become the English — but it’s not England yet. England hasn’t really been invented. So, it’s right at the point where what used to be Roman Britain is falling to pieces after the Romans have left, the point where it’s about to turn “English.” Anglo-Saxon invaders are about to sweep across the country, probably wiping out the Britons, and you know, their language is the language we’re speaking now.
It’s a big blank in history, but there’s been a sort of consensus long held that there probably was some kind of genocide at that point, because it’s called the Anglo-Saxon settlement, and that’s when the foundations of England are laid, at the end of the fifth century.
BNR: And this slaughter is unleashed by the memories released when the mist that causes forgetfulness disappears. So the idea of genocide is really important to the book?
KI: I was very disturbed by what happened in the ’90s in the old Yugoslavia. We’d grown up in the Cold War, always afraid of a nuclear shootout with the Soviet Union, and there was a real sense of relief when the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down, and it felt as if we were going to enter this really nice period and there was a really optimistic feeling for a while. What then happened in Yugoslavia was horrible, because just within a few years of the end of the Cold War we had concentration camps, we had a massacre, right in the middle of Europe — in a country where some of us had been on holiday, or hitchhiking or backpacking. We had the Srebrenica massacre, the worst European massacre since the Second World War, and it was all to do with one ethnic community wanting to wipe out another — a very disturbing thing to see happening in the heart of Europe. Then that was very closely followed by the Rwanda massacres.
These episodes had quite an impact on me, and ever since, I’ve wondered how can a country suddenly explode like that? How can it turn into such a bloodbath? And it was particularly disturbing because it was these people who had been living in these villages and towns together, people who’d been babysitting one another’s children went next door and burned their neighbors’ house and hanged the inhabitants.
And one of the things that stood out is the role that suppressed memory has in all this. People have agreed to just forget things that happened in the past, but when somebody deliberately stirs these memories in order to stir awake war or stir awake hatred, people suddenly think “Oh, those people across the road, I thought they were OK, but way back when their lot did horrible things to my lot, and unless we do something now they’re going to do it again.”
Northern Ireland was like that as well. Protestants and Catholics both dragged out these ritualistic things — the marching season, ancient battles, ancient atrocities — in order to fuel modern-day hatred.
So, that’s partly why I’ve created this old-fashioned, mythical story about memories being suppressed by something magical. Today, memories are controlled by media propaganda. In a country like ours, how do we actually go about looking at the past? It’s something to do with popular entertainment — books, museums, the royal days we have — all these things have a huge impact on what one age group of people thinks happened in the past.
BNR: But can’t remembering awful things make them less likely to happen again? Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day — I read an article about how a writer’s grandparents were killed in the Holocaust., and I thought at the time how important it was not to forget these things.
KI: I don’t come down on one side or the other about remembering or forgetting. It’s kind of a parallel to an argument about mental illness. Is it best to go to a therapist and stir awake memories about trauma and childhood, or is it better to leave it alone and move on and all that?
Take somewhere like America. One of their forgotten things, or things they don’t like to think about, is the way they’ve treated African Americans. Just in the past year there were so much protest around a white policeman shooting a black man. Obviously America isn’t at ease as a society over this — someone might say it’s because America never really owned up to how badly it treated African Americans. Until it goes back into its past and really looks at it and tries to address all these grievances it will never be at peace with itself. There will always be these eruptions of violence.
On the other hand someone else might say, you go back through all that, you’re just going to make it worse. You’re just going to make all these people angry that this stuff was done to their ancestors, so we should pretend we all got on really well.
I think this country — Britain — has chosen to remember the whole history of the Empire in a very sanitized way. And Japan has decided to forget that the Japanese army invaded China and most of South Asia and committed atrocities. They’ve completely blocked it out, literally out of their school textbooks, which causes tremendous friction with China now.
I think France is a really interesting case of a country that’s had to work very, very hard to forget something. Like the mist in the story, you know. France is still under some kind of strange mist.
I wouldn’t want to imply that there was something peculiarly wrong with the French, that the French have something wrong with them and the rest of us are far more civilized that the French. I have a problem with that, because I think that’s what all people are like. Whether its about America and Native Americans or America and the African Americans — it’s the human condition.
I think that almost everybody’s got something like this, but I don’t think that there’s an easy answer to the question of when you should really confront the past. Because sometimes confronting the past can lead to mayhem.
Like South Africa after apartheid, I think it’s a really really delicate balance. So many people were so furious about all those years when they were treated badly by minority whites, but I think Mandela and Co., when they came to power, were determined to avoid civil war or violence of any sort — they were really careful. They set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so people were allowed to come up and express their bitterness and anger, and they got some sense of justice being done in some sort of way. But they tried to not go too far down the road of arresting many people — doing a purge. Too much remembering about what had happened would just lead to civil war and violence, and the country just couldn’t cope.
It’s much the same with a marriage. For Axl and Beatrice [the couple at the center of The Buried Giant], is it better to remember the bad parts of their marriage or is it better to just forget it? Could it destroy their love if they remember too much? I had no answers to this — the story isn’t trying to come down on one side or another, it’s just saying, this is how we lived. We live with these dilemmas.
BNR: So would you consider setting a story like this in a real place, like France or Yugoslavia, say?
KI: I guess the answer is probably not. For a start I think I would have to really become quite expert on that situation. I don’t think it would be fair if I just skirted over those details — I’d have to really know my stuff to talk about one place, what had happened historically. And I’m not sure why would I want to single out one particular place, you know, there’s a kind of like an unfairness to that, I don’t want to make that an example. I don’t want to suggest that that any one kind of place is, you know, different, and this is why I think I often find myself creating worlds which are unrealistic, like in Never Let Me Go or in this book. I’m a novelist as opposed to a journalist, or a reporter or an essayist, I feel my territory is to talk about universal human experiences, not to report on what happened at a particular place at a particular time.
I think if that was what I was doing I would have to do it in a disciplined way. I should research it, I should claim my sources, I should plan my research — like reportage, you know? When you’re making things up in fiction it’s a different kind of thing. You’re appealing to people’s experiences as human beings, and you’re saying, is this something that strikes you as true about human behavior?
BNR: You were born in Nagasaki nine years after it was bombed, and I wondered, did this cast a shadow over your writing in any way?
KI: Well, actually, the odd thing was, I didn’t really understand that Nagasaki was so distinct in having been atom-bombed. It took me some time to realize that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only places in history to have suffered nuclear attacks.
When I was growing up there people didn’t tend to tell us, a four-year-old, a five-year old, “Did you know what happened?”
But I remember people mentioning it and there was no secret about it.
So I never associated Nagasaki with the atomic bomb. For me Nagasaki is all kinds of other things. I have all these colorful memories of our house, my toys, my kindergarten. I remember all this stuff, but I still don’t think of it emotionally as connected with the atomic bomb.
BNR: I wonder what it will be that overshadows our generation.
KI: Sometimes you don’t see that until you look back. I don’t know. The world is still very volatile.
BNR: Yes — the Twin Towers happened when our generation were children and triggered the Iraq war.
KI: I’m not sure how to say it, but I want to point out that when you say it “triggered the Iraq war” — the war wasn’t inevitable by any means. Saddam Hussein had nothing at all to do with 9/11. There was no link between the two. It was something that a handful of world leaders made happen in the general hysteria and mental chaos after 9/11. They just took the opportunity to attack Iraq. And instead of addressing who had committed this atrocity it was a step backwards, almost certainly because of the amount of effort that went into fighting in Iraq. They weren’t able to pursue Al Qaeda properly in Afghanistan or wherever else they were. I think we’ll look back on that episode in history and it will seem baffling why those people were allowed to take a huge hunk of the West into a war in Iraq.
And that’s coming close to what we were talking about before. This is an example of very recent history and perhaps people aren’t willing to go back there, perhaps because — to put it coldly — it’s an absolute disaster what the British and Americans did, and we don’t even know the extent of the disaster yet.
BNR: And now it’s horrendous.
KI: Yes — and now, they say, “OK, we did a good job, we’re going to pull out.” And within a few days we have ISIS or IS — those guys emerged within about three minutes of the allies pulling out, just committing atrocities on fellow Muslims, you know, all the way across Syria and Iraq. I mean the whole place is destabilized with groups that even Al Qaeda describe as too extreme, I mean, what a result, hey?
BNR: You did creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Creative writing courses have been criticized lately, by Hanif Kureishi among others.
KI: Ah, that’s Hanif, yes. He said something like, if I was one of those students, I’d be better off finding a mentor. Well, that’s just typical Hanif, he often says things that other people are too polite to say, but I think there’s some element of truth in it. My feeling is that the creative writing industry — which is what it’s become — has to be regulated better. There has to be something equivalent to “AA” ratings for hotels, or stars or something.
The creative writing world is a Wild West at the moment, and I think there are people actually saving up money and spending it on fees to be taught by someone who’s never published a novel, or published poetry. I know a very reputable one at one of the main universities in London right now where there’s a guy teaching fiction. He’s never published a novel, for all I know he’s never even written a novel.
You certainly can’t teach writing because you’ve read a lot or you’re a distinguished scholar in English literature, any more than a music critic can teach someone to play piano, or someone who can’t swim could coach for the Olympic swimming team, you know? It’s just absurd.
I have a feeling creative writing schools are more mature in America — some of the best names in contemporary literature teach at U.S. universities. People like Toni Morrison, until she retired, was teaching at Princeton, and there’s always been a different attitude in America about teaching writing — a lot of writers feel that if they do it even a little bit, they should do it. Like classical musicians, they’ll take on a few pupils, you know? So it is sort of a different scene — and its much more mature.
After the interview, Ishiguro went in search of Lorna. They called me a taxi to take me to the Tube.
I chatted with my taxi driver on the way to the station. He wants to be a writer, but he never shows his work to anyone. It felt like another piece of residual magic, seeping into life from The Buried Giant, now tatty and dog-eared — but nevertheless signed by Kazuo Ishiguro — resting in my bag.