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Mythic Retreat


The Booker Prize-winning author on samurai sword fights, the trouble with literary allusion, and the fabled world of post-Arthurian England.

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Image by Jeff Cottenden.

Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer who confronts the various sorrows of distance. Physical distance, as in the journeys embarked on by many of his characters, is the least tragic. Personal distance—the distance created by repressed desire, the distance between the anticipated and the achieved, and the distance that separates our memories from the events of our lives—is the most.

But while he has grappled with the theme throughout his lauded career, Ishiguro has taken a radically different route in each of his works to arrive there. A Pale View of Hills (1982) is an intentionally obfuscated account of a daughter’s suicide. An Artist of the Floating World (1986) charts the life of an artist in postwar Japan. The Remains of the Day (1989), which won the Booker Prize, follows a butler on his drive across England. When We Were Orphans (2000) is a detective story. The Unconsoled (1995), written according to “dream logic,” considers a pianist in Central Europe. Never Let Me Go (2005) is about a boarding school full of clones. Now, in The Buried Giant, his first novel in a decade, Ishiguro has written a post-Arthurian legend.

The Buried Giant, published this March, centers on an elderly couple walking through a desolate, ogre-infested Britain to find their son, several decades after the death of King Arthur. Their world is muddled by an amnesia epidemic that leaves them confused over their shared past and the indelibility of their love. Over the course of their wandering, they meet warriors—including Sir Gawain of Round Table fame—on quests to slay a dragon whose breath is the cause of all this forgetting.

The Buried Giant’s Gawain, though, is not simply a reincarnation of the character from the fourteenth-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and defeating the dragon doesn’t only indicate chivalric victory. Indeed, the whole of The Buried Giant contains much beyond its post-Arthurian landscape. As Ishiguro explains in the interview that follows, he’s “retreated into weirder and weirder places” in his work to avoid literal or reductive readings. While The Buried Giant traverses mythic and often fantastical territory, Ishiguro says that he wants his readers to think of this novel—and of all his novels—as “a human story from which we can take various and more universal messages.”

One might expect an author who has tackled subjects as grim as Nazi collaboration and organ harvesting, and whose characters tend to live lives marked by regret, to possess a serious demeanor. But when we met last month in New York City, Ishiguro spoke excitedly and at length, laughing readily at the absurdities to be found in art—from Greek mythology to Spaghetti Westerns—and tapping his fingertips along the coffee table to illustrate the farce of choreographed sword fights.

Rebecca Rukeyser for Guernica

Guernica: You’ve said that an inspiration for The Buried Giant was the fourteenth-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” What about that poem first sparked your interest?

Kazuo Ishiguro: Most of the poem—which I’ve known for a long, long time—was completely irrelevant to my book. There’s a little passage when the young Sir Gawain leaves Camelot and goes across Britain looking for this Green Knight’s castle. In that fragment, which is literally about one stanza, there’s a mini-description of the landscape that he crosses, and then he gets to the castle and the story continues.

What really sparked my imagination as far as The Buried Giant was concerned was that tiny little description of the country he was crossing. It sounds like such a weird place. Britain in those days was really rough. There weren’t any inns or anything like that where he could stay, so he had to sleep on rocks in the pouring rain—I don’t know why he had to sleep on rocks, he could have slept under a tree, but that’s what it says—and there are a couple of lines that say that he was chased by wolves and wild boar and panting ogres. They’d chase him up hills, out of villages. That’s the first and last time you hear anything about ogres.

I thought, “This is a rather interesting landscape.” Particularly the panting ogres. They’re more or less like wild bulls or something: they were an inconvenience. There’s no real sense of surprise that there’s this panting ogre coming after you.

So that helped form the fictional landscape in which The Buried Giant took place. But I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the importance of the rest of it, really. I should say in general that if somebody’s an enthusiast about the Arthurian legends and the Holy Grail and all of that then probably my book is a big disappointment.

To be honest, I don’t know very much about the Arthurian Legends. The Arthur in my book is a quasi-historical Arthur. It’s possible that there is a real historical figure upon which the King Arthur myth was based. And it’s that figure, a military leader, who was around in that time who perhaps—and I say perhaps because the history there was so murky—led the resistance fighting on the part of the Britons [the indigenous people] against the migrants who were in increasing numbers taking over parts of the island. These are the people who later became the English; they basically took over the whole country.

So a lot of people think that if there’s a historical basis for the Arthur legend it was this great leader who, for maybe a generation or two, managed to impose a kind of a peace and stability, but a very, very uneasy one as a result of having won major military victories. And then eventually that peace crumbled and the Anglo-Saxons took over Britain and the place became English. It’s that Arthur that I’m interested in rather than the Arthur of the Holy Grail legends.

Guernica: Arthur as a military leader?

Kazuo Ishiguro: I suppose you could even call him a dictator. He was probably not that different to some of the guys in the Middle East: a strong ruler who imposed some kind of a coexistence among different tribes who would have otherwise been tearing each others’ throats out. He’s imposed some kind of peace, but it’s not good peace. It’s just strong-armed peace. That’s the situation that attracted me to that particular version of British history.

What about all the giants in personal memory that you want to keep buried? But there are parts of you that want to exhume them.

Guernica: I understand you also considered setting the novel in post-World War II France. Or Rwanda.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Yes. I even toyed with the idea of having a modern setting where someone jetted between these various “buried giant” societal memory situations, from one place to the next. I wanted to avoid writing a novel that seemed to be only about one particular situation. I didn’t want to write a book about Rwanda and nothing else. I didn’t want to write a book about Bosnia and Kosovo and nothing else. Or, indeed, postwar France.

The idea of placing The Buried Giant somewhere almost mythical was a way of retreating to a sort of neutral, equidistant territory, so that the reader could say, “Well, this is kind of a fable. Maybe this is a pattern that recurs throughout history. This is part of the human experience.”

And also I wanted it to be much more than just about societal memory of conflict situations. It was very important to me that I had this personal story at the heart of the book, that the same questions apply to a relationship. What about all the giants in personal memory that you want to keep buried? But there are parts of you that want to exhume them.

That’s the situation in the marriage [in the book]. The role of shared memory is important in keeping the bonds together in a marriage, and in a family. But there is this question of what you do with the uncomfortable memories. You can go quite a long way just keeping them buried, but then a question arises: Is the love in a marriage or a family based on something false if it’s based on false or incomplete memory?

So in my story the couple really wants to know. There’s something unsatisfying about having huge blanks in the path that they’ve come. But they also fear what they’re going to discover. I saw the parallel between a society that has that kind of dynamic.

Guernica: You’ve written a number of books that deal with historical specificity as well as interpersonal complications. Did your decision to move into a metaphoric realm with The Buried Giant have anything to do with the way those books were perceived?

Kazuo Ishiguro: When I wrote my early novels set in Japan, I was publishing in the West—my first audience was British and European and American. Maybe because Japanese culture seemed quite far away and exotic, particularly back then in the ’80s, people tended to say, “Oh, this is an interesting study of Japanese psychology, this is what the Japanese went through.”

It did seem to confine, I felt, the relevance of the book to those people who were Japanophiles or who had a peculiar interest in what the Japanese had gone through after the war. While that’s not by any means a wrong reading, I thought it was limiting. And that’s when I started to think maybe I needed something a bit more metaphorical. Otherwise people are going to think, “We’re just talking about this historical situation.”

When I wrote The Remains of the Day I thought it would be more universal, and to an extent it was. People did read it both specifically as something that took place in that time in history, but also, maybe because it was Western and didn’t have that shock of the exotic, people were more ready to say, “This is a human story from which we can take various and more universal messages.”

But nevertheless I was still uncomfortable about the fact that people seemed to think I was a great expert on English social history. Often people said, “You must have done a lot of research about how servants ran houses” or “You must know a hell of a lot about European foreign policy.”

And of course I had to do a ton of research about that, but I felt that was slightly beside the point. I wanted to say, “Well, if that was what I was trying to do, I would have written a nonfiction book, properly annotated and with my sources named so that you could argue with me and say, ‘You’ve got that wrong, I’ve got it right.’”

Since then I feel I’m retreating into weirder and weirder places. And that’s not by conscious policy, it’s just that, book by book, whenever I try to write a story and I try to figure out where it should be set, both historically and in terms of genre, I find myself thinking—as I did with this one—“Well, if I do that it will be very literal.”

In the case of The Buried Giant, I could have gone for a kind of sci-fi setting, because I needed a situation where there was this collective amnesia—maybe for an unexplained reason. In McCarthy’s The Road you don’t quite know why civilization has disappeared. I thought, “I don’t have to build a particular reason, they could just be suffering from it,” but the world that that implied—whether a futuristic or alternate reality—didn’t really appeal to me.

It was around that point that I came across the little passage [in “Gawain and the Green Knight”]. I just thought that that would be more fun, and I’d never done it before. I think the wish to kind of go back to ancient tools of storytelling using superstitious and supernatural forces was appealing to me. To create a pre-scientific world.

Guernica: So the setting wasn’t born out of an interest in examining mythology?

Kazuo Ishiguro: Not really. Having faced the choice of should it be a galaxy far away or something, it was quite appealing to me to use tropes not so much from mythology as from old tales. The book doesn’t use anything like the way the gods behave in ancient Greek myths or Homer or Euripides. You don’t get Athena wandering about intervening or deciding what should happen next. It’s not myth in that sense.

Guernica: What about a mythologized England? In past novels, you’ve interrogated different facets of Englishness that have become mythologized in the global imagination. Do you see a progression, from the manor and the butler in The Remains of the Day to the Holmes-like superstar detective in When We Were Orphans to a boarding school in Never Let Me Go—to Arthurian legend?

Kazuo Ishiguro: I don’t think I was consciously trying to. I suppose because I live in Britain I’m more confident about setting things in England. If I’m going to use these stereotypes for my own ends—like an English butler, or indeed an English boarding school—I probably feel more confident doing it about something British rather than, say, something American.

I feel it’s not my place to start mucking about with the American sense of how America was built and the self-deceptions of America.

Guernica: I hear you like Westerns.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The reason I wouldn’t dare to write a Western is simply because that seems to be so much a part of your [American] culture. Maybe if I want to write a Western enough I should try to overcome that fear, but I’ll certainly feel like I’m trespassing. I feel that that is so much a part of your [American] foundation myth, it’s part of the myth of America, the American vision of what America is, which people have glorified and then challenged and then vilified.

So if I did go to that era I would feel like I’d have to tread very carefully because I’m talking about another nation’s foundation myth. I’d probably feel slightly more reckless in Britain. And I’d probably—with no justification—feel slightly more confident even about Japanese stuff. I just feel I’ve got a little more license. I’m not sure that that’s rational or not. Maybe it’s just politeness or something. I feel it’s not my place to start mucking about with the American sense of how America was built and the self-deceptions of America and what she told herself about her history. If I lived here for a while and felt more American maybe I’d dare to do that.

Guernica: The Buried Giant contains numerous violent scenes, which is a departure for you. What was the experience of writing violence like?

Kazuo Ishiguro: It came to me with disturbing naturalness. Which is weird. I’ve been writing all these decades and never written a violent scene. I thought, “Can I do it?” and it just kind of flowed out. I was slightly scared by that.

I’m not an aficionado of violent scenes but maybe you can roughly divide one-on-one fights into fistfights, sword fights, and gun fights. Maybe there are other more exotic ways for two people to fight, but all the other ways are variations.

Guernica: Knives?

Kazuo Ishiguro: Yeah, knives, but that’s kind of like a sword fight. In this case we’re talking about sword fights. I thought a bit about different versions of sword fights. I remember very vividly, when I was a boy raised on samurai sword fights, coming to Britain and watching these old black-and-white movies with Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn on the television—like The Prisoner of Zenda—and I couldn’t quite understand: Are these guys actually fighting? Are they fighting with swords? Because they had these kind of funny flimsy things. I was used to deadly samurai swords.

They’re conversing for it seems like half an hour, and they kind of move about a castle going backward and forward, and usually one of them is brought to the edge of a parapet. So I thought, “This is funny. In the West sword fighting seems to be: you have long conversations and you defeat the other person by gradually, incrementally edging them over a cliff. This is a funny thing.”

I was used to the idea of two deadly, highly trained warriors staring at each other for a long, long time, and then just one explosion of violence. I always rather liked that. Maybe that’s why I liked Westerns as well, because of this weird ritual of who can draw the gun. What appeals to me is that tension before that explosion of violence: the two people facing each other, and the idea of those years and years of training and practice and martial knowledge. They know that it’s just come to this tiny point, this moment, and they stare at each other, and you wonder, “What’s going through their minds? What does this moment feel like?” They’re peculiarly united and isolated in this thing together. They’re mortal enemies—literally—but at that moment they’re really bonded.

You get that in the Iliad as well, particularly between Hector and Achilles. But all the way through you’re following one-on-one encounters in the Trojan wars. So even if it’s a minor character getting killed, I still wanted for that little moment a sense of an enclave that isolates the two warriors in that intensity.

I actually dislike working through literary allusion. I just feel that there’s something a bit snobbish or elitist about that.

Guernica: You’ve spoken about Gawain, but do other characters in The Buried Giant owe anything to characters from literature or history?

Kazuo Ishiguro: Besides Gawain, the characters that are directly referenced are dead people, like Arthur and Merlin. I’m alluding to them almost in quasi-historical versions.

I’ve read reviews that say that Wistan is obviously based on Beowulf. It occurs to me there are a lot of resemblances—the way he turns up in the village and says, “Yes, all right, I’ll do you a favor. I’ll deal with your problems,” and he’s physically very strong and ends up killing a dragon. But I don’t want to make a big deal of it. There are many, many hero types like that, in every kind of storytelling. Wistan is a kind of regular super-warrior type. But he is conflicted, because he feels he can’t hate enough to be the pure killing machine he ought to be—he’s just been touched by having too much to do with the people who are supposed to be his enemy.

I don’t really like to work with literary allusions very much. I never want to be in a position where I’m saying, “You’ve got to read a lot of other stuff” or “You’ve got to have had a good education in literature to fully appreciate what I’m doing.” So many people have said, “Beatrice is called Beatrice. Is this something to do with Dante?” Well, as far as I’m concerned: no.

I had two scholarly lists that I downloaded from academic websites. One list was for Anglo-Saxon names. The other list was for Romano-Celtic names. And every time I needed a person’s name I looked on one list or the other depending on which tribe they came from. And by and large I tried to pick names that weren’t too weird, that were recognizable to the modern reader but nevertheless came from these lists, although they were slightly modernized versions of what they would have been.

I actually dislike, more than many people, working through literary allusion. I just feel that there’s something a bit snobbish or elitist about that. I don’t like it as a reader, when I’m reading something. It’s not just the elitism of it; it jolts me out of the mode in which I’m reading. I’ve immersed myself in the world and then when the light goes on I’m supposed to be making some kind of literary comparison to another text. I find I’m pulled out of my kind of fictional world, I’m asked to use my brain in a different kind of way. I don’t like that. I find it the same with movies too, sometimes, all these clever allusions to other movies. I think, “Well, that kind of spoils it. I was enjoying myself. I was far away in this world and now you’ve reminded me you’re making a movie and this is supposed to be an homage to something someone else did in such-and-such.” I find that kind of thing a little irritating, and I don’t like to do it.

Just having Gawain there seemed to place The Buried Giant time-wise: where we were in relation to Arthur’s reign. I don’t think there’s any important literary allusion in there at all. And I want to discourage people from going down that path and trying to find literary allusions: it’s not going to work.

Guernica: I’m also curious to hear why you chose a rotating point of view in The Buried Giant.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Well, that was largely because right up until this book I had been concerned with personal memory. Typically [in my novels] the narrator tells a story by remembering, and the memories are colored by this and colored by that.

So the whole universe of the novel tends to be framed by the narrator’s memories and thoughts. But in this case I knew that I wanted to talk about societal memory: how a nation remembers and forgets, not just what one character does. There are some first-person narrations in the book, but if the whole thing had just been one character narrating, I think inevitably that character’s personal memories and that individual struggle of remembering and forgetting would have dominated the book.

I needed a slightly more neutral position in order to try to get a sense of the whole nation and the community. And in terms of the marriage, I needed once again a slightly more neutral way of narrating so it wasn’t tilted too much toward Axl or Beatrice but was about the memories of a couple. Because that’s what it’s about: what they want to remember, and what they want to forget, as a couple.

It was a painful choice for me, because I love the first person and that’s where I feel comfortable. But by taking that little step away and then switching viewpoints, it could be easier to get a sense of societal memory on the one hand and the role of memory in a marriage on the other. I wouldn’t get sucked down a path of just one individual’s dilemmas dominating the book. That was quite a conscious choice. It’s possible I could have done it with the first person in some way, but I just thought this time that that’s how I’d go into it. And that’s how it stayed.

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