The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh novel, and his first in a decade, is as risky as it is intriguing. It is a sort of historical fantasy novel filled with she-dragons and knights, according to some, and an allegory of historical amnesia according to others. Yes, it is heavy with dialogue and yes, it dabbles in theology on the surface, but it is also deeply human, rooted in themes fundamental to the human experience: love, history, and the ability to remember it all.
JANE GAYDUK: Was there a lot of pressure on you to produce a new novel in the last 10 years?
KAZUO ISHIGURO: Oddly there wasn’t. It was disconcerting actually — no one seems particularly eager for me to produce new work. I think writers who write crime fiction, or certain kinds of genres, do get enormous pressure put on them — it has something to do with the way the industry works. Whereas with writers like me publishers seem to make a big point of not putting pressure; it’s in bad form. And so I was left in splendid isolation; it was part of the reason I didn’t realize that so many years were going by and I hadn’t produced another novel. But I have to say I did produce a book of short stories between Never Let Me Go and this one, but no, I don’t think I’ve ever felt any pressure in terms of time.
Nobody’s ever said to me “you must produce something by a certain date,” apart from right at the beginning of my career, when somebody said to me “you’ve produced a novel that’s got some tension, you must keep up a certain rhythm, at least once every two years you should publish a novel otherwise you’ll disappear.”
They were wrong.
Well, it took me four years or five years before I came up with my second novel, and that wasn’t a strategy, that was just how long it took. And it didn’t do me any harm at all; I’ve never thought about it since. I don't feel any pressure in terms of timing. I do feel pressure in terms of what I eventually put out there. I’m very fortunate in that people give me a lot attention when I eventually put out a book, but that does mean there’s a certain amount of pressure on me, because whatever I publish is going to come under enormous scrutiny, so it has to be acceptable.
You first novel came out in 1982. Has the changing digital landscape of the past 30 or so years affected how you write lengthier works?
Now that you’re asking me this question, maybe there is something that’s slightly changed, and I’m barely aware of it myself, which is, in the old days when it was pen and then typewriter, every time I wrote even something for an early draft, the adrenaline would come out. And it was almost like I was about to perform, even if I was in my study and I knew I could revise it, because I didn’t have the ability to carry on revising it and revising it, as I do now on the computer. Every time I put a sheet of paper into the typewriter in the old days I would have to go into some zone of concentration, I suppose like an improvising jazz musician in front of an audience. And that sense now, that I’ve got to get it right, concentrate, focus — that isn’t quite so urgent anymore. There’s a feeling that oh I’ll do it, then I could look at it, then I’ll change it again. Maybe a little edge has gone off. Sometimes I miss that sense that you’re up there in the spotlight and you’ve got to produce something, which can be an incentive and a source of invention in itself, as a lot of musicians will tell you.
Research has gotten easier in the internet age, but sometimes that can be deceptive as well. You tend to use something relatively superficial as your research because there’s a lot of it at hand. In the old days you had to go to libraries or actually go around interviewing people; maybe you dug deeper in some way because there was no choice but to do otherwise. It’s easier to be satisfied with a more superficial level of research when you just do it online.
How would you tackle the idea of memory — a huge theme in The Buried Giant — if you were to set a story like that in the age where everything is online?
One of the questions that intrigue me right now — I suppose these are questions that emerged in my mind as I was writing The Buried Giant, but there was no room in the book itself for exploring them — would be, where do the memory banks in a modern society reside? And I think that question has gotten really complicated now. Maybe in simpler societies such as the one I portray in The Buried Giant — I don't think those societies were simple but perhaps they were simpler in respect to this particular question — you could point to your living memory, what the oldest people who are living still remember about what happened, literally what is handed down, people telling each other things.
In today’s world it’s so hard to figure out where on earth these last memories are being stored or indeed where what happened last week is being stored. It’s fragmented and it’s in so many places. It’s in all these tweets and all these postings, it’s in media and in popular entertainment, it’s in all the things that people are saying to each other through technology and face to face, and I think the ways of controlling what is remembered are so sophisticated now. We’re talking about ultra sophisticated, deliberate manipulations and recordings of what is happening, so I think the question has got so complicated in the modern world, and while on the one hand it’s fascinating, I find it almost overwhelming to think about how a society like ours today would go about storing memories.
And how do we go about forgetting things?
That’s quite alarming as well. Possibly a lot of people have the ability to make us forget things and when we have information overload, as we do, it’s much easier to forget things, you don’t even have to resort to forced amnesia, you just crowd things out of people’s heads. Because of the neck of the woods I live in, culturally, I pay a lot of attention to what happens in movies and books and how those things tend to have a powerful influence on the way we remember, say what America was like in the 1920s, or what was going on in France during the Second World War when it was occupied. I find it fascinating to note the extent to which in popular culture many things from the relatively recent past are either not there at all or are distorted.
Do you think this changes the nature of history? It used to be written down by a select few people who had the power to shape stories, but now it’s almost like every individual participates in shaping history and thought.
If you leave the official account of a nation’s history, a community’s history, to just a handful of people, I think that’s a more dangerous situation. Particularly if it’s a handful of people who are usually a very narrow sect of society, the upper echelons really, who had access to these positions where they could write the history books and then have those history books taught in schools and so on. Of course skilled, disciplined, and talented historians have always been vital to a society, and I think they’ll continue to be vital to a society, but in some ways I feel encouraged by the fact that so many ordinary people now have the ability to put down their impressions; at least there’s the potential that their voices will be assessed and heard.
Just as an example, when I was researching The Remains of the Day, which is about an English butler, I went out there assuming I’d find a lot of accounts by people who had worked in service because that’s what an enormous proportion of people in Britain did between the First and Second World War, they worked as servants of one sort or another. And I was amazed to find almost nothing — a complete blank. There were scholarly books written by academics about the history of servants, but actual personal accounts written by people like that were almost zero. Basically, it boiled down to two writers who thought it was worthwhile to record their stores, something like memoirs. I guess it’s because people of that class didn’t feel it was their place to write things down, and they probably didn’t have the tools or the time, or perhaps the education even to write things down. So there’s a huge chunk of human experience that I think vanished. I think there is something encouraging about people being able to record things everywhere, that data is potentially there, but it still begs this issue of an overwhelming amount of data, with all these emails that are deliberately or inadvertently hanging around people’s hard drives, and all these tweets and things are out there, the quantity is overwhelming, and there are very sophisticated means of controlling those and deciding which becomes the predominant things that determine the way we remember what we experienced.
Because the battle of memory is the battle of what happens now, what we do next. It’s a battle of how we feel about, say, a particular ethnic group that lives in our midst, or how we feel about a particular country that we may or may not go to war with. Those are big questions that are often decided by how we choose to remember what happened in the recent past or even in the distant past. I think this question about societal memory and how we control it and how we can resist being manipulated by people who control it, I think it’s a colossal question. I personally feel overwhelmed by it.
Does your English countryside cottage, mentioned in the New York Times profile, have wi-fi or have you managed to seclude yourself?
It does have wi-fi, but the cellphone reception is really bad because it’s remote, and to some extent we welcome that. It seems like behind this question is another one — is modern communication making it harder to find an emotional and physical space in which to create things?
Yes, that is what I was getting at.
The answer to that is yes, it is getting harder and not just in very obvious ways. If I set aside an afternoon or a day to work on something I can just say, look, I don’t want to deal with anything for these hours apart from the thing in front of me. It’s the invasion of these more incidental little quiet moments that all of us used to have. I’m about to get on a plane with my wife this afternoon, and, in the past, probably, even seven or eight years ago, there would have been moments where I’m sitting in the airport lounge and there’s nothing to do but to talk with my wife and reflect on the three weeks we’ve been touring the United States; we may have talked with somebody who happened to be sitting near us in the lounge or I may have taken out a little notepad knowing that I can’t do anything now but wait for the plane, and there’s a sense of tranquility that comes over me because no one can disturb me.
On the plane itself there was a sense of sanctuary: for a number of hours you’re stuck on this plane — maybe I could read, maybe I could actually try out some ideas. I used to love that kind of thing. Now even on the plane you’re allowed to have your device on! Right until the moment we board I know my wife is going to be writing emails and telling me things that are flooding into her machine and we’re going to be discussing what on earth to do about it, how we’ll reply, and it’s those little moments when, looking back, I had a lot of ideas in those incidental moments. There used to be all these little quiet spaces in the course of an ordinary day, not a writing day, when a lot of things happened and ideas occurred to me or a casual conversation I had with strangers would spark something, but they all seem to be removed and I have to just attend to my inbox. It’s more than just the time set aside, whether it’s in my study in London, or my home in the countryside, it’s perhaps a more insidious invasion of creative space.
On the topic of finishing books, did you write past the official ending of The Buried Giant or was that your natural end? I felt the conclusion was kind of a cliffhanger.
I don’t really think of the ending as a cliffhanger, but maybe it’s more ambiguous than I intended. That is the ending I always wanted, though. With all my books, one of the things I have very clearly in my head is the ending because to some extent that’s what I’m aiming for. I’m aiming for a certain emotion to come over with the book as a whole and usually that is the emotion the ending should deliver, and I can’t deliver that emotion in an earned, proper way unless the rest of the book has worked, so I’m always very aware of the ending — it’s not something I add when the story is finished. For me, the ending for all my books is the arrival point; it’s what I’ve been aiming at all along.
One or two people have said to me, “Well, what happens at the end — do [Beatrice and Axl] separate, or do they get to go to the island together, or what?” In my mind it’s pretty clear: the voyage to the island is about death. However much you love each other, however much you wish it weren’t so, there’s no way to go together across that line. And I didn’t want it to be brutal! But I thought that’s what the couple in my novel realized when they finally got to that point, that there’s no way around it and so [Axl] goes back and [Beatrice] makes that voyage by herself. That’s what’s happening at the end.
I didn’t realize they were dying in that moment. I almost feel stupid for not realizing that.
They’re not literally dying, but within the metaphorical terms of that book, yes. It’s a little mythical, but that last voyage stands for death, obviously. She’s sick, she’s got to make that journey before he does, and some people hope that they can stay together — they’ll accept death as long as they don’t have to separate, that's what some couples hope in the story — but the brutal truth in the end is that it’s just a hope, a hopeful rumor that goes around amongst the people. In the end, you have to make that journey alone.
The book spurred so much talk about allegories and theology and the fantasy genre; do you feel like the love story at the center of the novel is being overlooked?
To some extent yes. When talking about the book I have been trying to emphasize that it is a love story, a love story of a particular kind, because when we say love story we tend to think of a story where two people come together and declare their love for each other and the story ends. Whereas this is a love story about what happens in the years that take place after two people come together; it’s about the long haul of love, and that, to me, is a proper love story. But if we’re writing about love, we should write about how you keep love alive and healthy and strong over all the different changes and pressures through the aging process. That is what’s really at the forefront of my book, and it’s what people will discover when they read it.
Jane Gayduk is a Brooklyn-based journalist and photographer.