IN HIS wierdest, riskiest and most ambitious novel to date Kazuo Ishiguro takes a full on excursion into fantasy. The author tells Alexandra Alter how memory is at the heart of The Buried Giant and why it took ten years to complete
About a decade ago, Kazuo Ishiguro was 50 pages into a new novel when, uncharacteristically, he was paralysed by doubt. The novel, a mythic tale set roughly 1,500 years ago in a wild, fantastical England populated by ogres, pixies, knights and dragons, was unlike anything he’d ever written. He worried that the setting and the dialogue might seem stilted or silly.
He asked his wife, Lorna, to read the opening pages. Her response was brutal.
“She looked at it and said, ‘This will not do,’” he recalls. “‘I don’t mean you need to tweak it; you need to start from scratch. None of this can be seen by anybody.’”
He put the book aside and wrote a collection of short stories instead. He didn’t return to the novel for six years.
That novel, The Buried Giant, will finally come out next week, and it is the weirdest, riskiest and most ambitious thing he has published in his celebrated 33-year career. Though it tackles many of Ishiguro’s hallmark themes – memory and how it fades and gets suppressed and distorted, and our inability to fully face the past – The Buried Giant signals a stark departure from his spare, emotionally understated novels like The Remains of the Day, and Never Let Me Go, an eerie and melancholy dystopian love story.
The Buried Giant centres on an old couple, Axl and Beatrice, who travel across a treacherous and lawless landscape to find their lost son, while hobbled by the fog of collective amnesia that seems to have descended on the land through a curse. They meet an old knight, Sir Gawain, who is on his own quixotic quest and becomes their protector from a host of mundane and supernatural threats.
Ishiguro still seems slightly anxious about how the book will be received. It could be embraced as brilliant and groundbreaking, or it could be a spectacular flop if readers balk at his full-on excursion into fantasy.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
It is a windy, overcast day in late January in Chipping Campden, a tiny, postcard-perfect village in the Cotswolds where Ishiguro and his wife spend quiet weekends at their yellow limestone cottage. Ishiguro finished working on the final chapters of The Buried Giant here, at a small, tidy desk on the second floor looking out on an overgrown garden.
His home in London is cluttered with all sorts of distractions – piles of books, a screening room for movies, a piano and his collection of eight guitars. (Ishiguro, who tried and failed to make it as a singer and songwriter in his 20s, writes song lyrics for the jazz singer Stacey Kent and still plays jazz and acoustic guitar, “no worse than the average amateur,” he says.)
The village, a former wool trading hub that dates to the 14th century, offers little entertainment besides taking long walks in the surrounding fields and spending the afternoon in one of the handful of pubs or tearooms. But he is not convinced that the countryside is any more conducive to work.
“In theory, this should be a great place to write, but some places are too pretty,” he says, sitting in the snug living room of his centuries-old cottage, which is generously proportioned for a hobbit, with a ceiling that barely exceeds six feet. “In practice, it may be a great place to have tea and cake.”
Before Ishiguro got around to talking about the inspiration for The Buried Giant, he digresses for nearly an hour about France after the Nazi occupation, modern-day Bosnia and Japan, and other places that seemed like possible settings for the novel at one point.
“Now you see my problem,” he says, explaining why it took him so long to write the novel and why, even now, he finds it hard to describe the story’s origins. “For a long time, I couldn’t get going on this book.”
In a way, the fact that The Buried Giant is such a surprising departure should not be surprising at all. Over the past three decades, Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki and grew up in England, has consistently bucked expectations, reinventing himself with each book.
After exploring post-Second World War Japan in his first two books, he wrote the Booker Prize-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, which was narrated by an English butler. At the time, he worried he was treading on familiar ground, but reviewers took the opposite view.
“I was afraid that people would say, ‘Oh, it’s the same book again, about an old guy looking back over his life with regret when it’s too late to change things,’” he recalls. “Instead, they were saying, ‘Your books are always set in Japan; this is a giant leap for you.’ I get this with almost every book.”
That pattern has repeated itself with each of his subsequent novels. The Unconsoled, a surreal, dreamlike novel about a pianist in an unnamed European city, was treated as magical realism when it came out in 1995. Critics and scholars classified When We Were Orphans as a detective novel. His 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, was canonised as futuristic science fiction, although it was set at an English boarding school in the 1990s.
“He’s baffled me from the very first book,” says Sonny Mehta, the chairman and editor-in-chief of Alfred A Knopf, who has worked with Ishiguro since his 1989 novel Remains of the Day.
Still, The Buried Giant, which wanders unabashedly into George RR Martin and Tolkien territory, is a more pronounced shift, even for an iconoclast like Ishiguro.
“As a longtime Ishiguro reader, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected, and I got it,” Lev Grossman, the fantasy novelist and book critic, says of The Buried Giant. “A misty Arthurian epic is just about the last thing I would have seen coming.”
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Some fans view The Buried Giant as a leap not just for Ishiguro, but also for fantasy literature as a whole. David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, says in an email that if he was “forced at knife point” to name his favourite Ishiguro novel, he would choose The Buried Giant for the way it uses fantasy tropes to explore questions about love and mortality.
“Fantasy plus literary fiction can achieve things that frank blank realism can’t,” says Mitchell, who adds that he hopes The Buried Giant will help to “de-stigmatise” fantasy. “Bending the laws of what we call reality in a novel doesn’t necessarily lead to elves saying ‘Make haste! These woods will be swarming with orcs by nightfall.’”
Ishiguro says the atmosphere of the book was shaped more by 1950s western movies and the subversive “anti-Samurai Samurai” films of Masaki Kobayashi, which he grew up watching, than by fantasy literature.
He arrived at the fantasy setting partly out of desperation. For the past 15 years, he had been toying with the idea for a novel exploring collective memory, and how societies and cultures recover from past atrocities by forgetting. He considered setting it in post-Second World War France, or in contemporary Bosnia, America or Japan. But he worried that a realistic historical setting would blunt the effect of the idea, making it seem too narrow and political.
“I wanted to put it in some setting where people wouldn’t get too literal about it, where they wouldn’t think, oh, he’s written a book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the Middle East,” he says.
The solution came in the form of a 14th-century chivalric poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. When Ishiguro read the poem, which describes Arthurian England as a wild, lawless land full of panting ogres, something clicked.
“I wasn’t interested in the usual King Arthur stuff, ladies in pointy hats and tournaments, but I thought, this kind of barren, weird England, with no civilisation, that could be quite interesting,” he says.
He started to research what life was like around the sixth century, after the Romans had withdrawn and during the Anglo-Saxon settlement.
“To my delight, I discovered nobody knows what the hell was going on,” he says cheerfully. “It’s a blank period of British history.”
The characters and plot came quickly, but Ishiguro struggled with the dialogue. He wanted the speech to sound ancient and slightly foreign, but he was wary of sounding stuffy and florid, like a 1940s Robin Hood movie. He showed it to his wife, who confirmed his fears, calling the dialogue “laughable.”
Lorna Ishiguro was slightly more diplomatic in the retelling.
“The language was a bit self-conscious and overly lyrical,” she says over lunch at a restaurant on Chipping Campden’s main street. “Ish’s great strength is eliciting emotion through the story. He’s not about beautiful sentences.”
Despite his wandering appetite when it comes to genre, Ishiguro has been remarkably consistent in his pared-down prose style and in the themes he returns to obsessively. Time and the porous nature of memory are long-running preoccupations of Ishiguro’s, and lately, they’ve become more of a practical than a philosophical concern. At 60, he says he feels his mental powers slipping. He points to revered authors like Faulkner, Dickens and Hemingway who produced their best work in their 30s and worries about how he will age as a writer.
“Everything’s declining,” he says. “I used to be able to hold really complicated things in my head at once, complicated worlds. Now if I have an idea, I write it down.”
Lately, Ishiguro has been studying work by aging writers and musicians. He cites Philip Roth’s distilled, understated prose in Nemesis and Cormac McCarthy’s spare dystopian novel, The Road, as one model, and Bob Dylan’s warm, lush late style as another possible path.
“It will be interesting to see which way you go,” Lorna Ishiguro says, when the subject of Ishiguro’s late style came up.
“The usual way to go is to just decline,” Ishiguro says.
“You’re not going to do that,” she replies. “You’re too worked up about it.”
After his wife’s cutting critique of the early pages of The Buried Giant, Ishiguro wasn’t prepared for another ego bashing. When he returned to the novel in 2011, he started from scratch and didn’t show her until he was finished.
He sought her advice again when he was casting around for a title. They batted around ideas during car trips to their country cottage as they drove past fields of grazing sheep and miles of lush farmland. After many false starts, they found a phrase that fitted. It had been buried in the text all along, at the beginning, when Axl and Beatrice set out on their journey, and later in a passage that refers to the excavation of painful memories.
“The giant well buried is now beginning to stir,” Ishiguro says, referring to the scene late in the novel. “And when it wakes up, there’s going to be mayhem.”
•The Edinburgh International Book Festival is hosting Kazuo Ishiguro at a special event to celebrate the publication of The Buried Giant, his first novel for ten years. The author will discuss his writing at the Royal Lyceum Theatre on Thursday 5 March at 5:15pm. Tickets, priced at £12 (£10 concession) are available from the Lyceum box office, www.lyceum.org.uk
•The Buried Giant is published by Faber on Tuesday, £20
© NYT 2015