Kazuo Ishiguro On Memory, Censorship And Why Proust Is Overrated

03/03/2015 09:10 am ET | Updated Mar 03, 2015
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Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant, was over a decade in the making, but unlike so many anticipated literary releases, it’s no sweeping saga of century-spanning conflicts. Nor is it a painstakingly assembled retelling of his own personal history. Instead, the author describes his quiet, deeply touching story as “fable-like.”

Set in Arthurian Britain circa 500 A.D. -- a historical period we know little about -- it follows an old married couple that hopes to restore their lost memories, as they and their neighbors seem to be suffering from a collective amnesia.

Axl and Beatrice are granted permission to leave their town, and early on in their journey they encounter bloodthirsty pixies, a once-fierce dragon made weak with age, a passionate warrior who harbors a lust for vengeance, and a stubborn boatman whose route leads passengers to an Eden-like mythical land. They soon learn from a weak, old Sir Gawain (the Green Knight, that is) that the dragon’s enchanted breath is the source of their hazy thinking.

Fantastical plot devices aside, Ishiguro would characterize his novel as an extended metaphor for the way social memory functions -- be it the way a nation tries to forget a war, or a married couple attempts to recall the details of their wanton first dates.

Although he's written about the complexities of personal memories in many of his novels, Ishiguro has never attempted to confront how memory impacts us on a social level. "I want people to appreciate the difficulty of questions about remembering and forgetting," he told The Huffington Post. "I want to insist on the complexity of human dilemmas."

Below, Kazuo Ishiguro discusses the central themes of his latest novel, as well as his opinions on genre, Marcel Proust and the way memory is illustrated in movies:

On writing a novel that -- on its surface, at least -- differs from his earlier works:
My initial inclination was to carry on doing these kind of monologues, which my previous books have been. With Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, you stay well within the consciousness of just one character. They turn over their memories, sometimes they’re hiding from more uncomfortable parts of their pasts. And that question of, "When is it better to just forget things and keep them forgotten?" comes up over and over again as applied to just one individual.

[The Buried Giant] is not a first-person narrative, and it takes place in a landscape I haven’t previously used. Those are the two really obvious departures. And they were both very conscious decisions. I did something I’ve been wanting to do for at least 15 years, which was to write a novel about that same question -- when is it better to remember, when is it better to forget -- but applied on a larger scale, to society, to a nation, to a community. I couldn’t keep it as a first-personal narrative. This book wouldn’t be appropriate as something that stays within the confines of just one mind. I had to somehow have a way of portraying a kind of a community as a crucial point of its development.

On collective memory and its role in war:
[The Buried Giant] was triggered by my being here in Europe when Yugoslavia disintegrated, and during the Rwandan genocide. Both of these happened very close together in the '90s. And they were puzzling as they were horrifying -- how people who had lived so intimately for a generation, using each other’s babysitters for their children -- suddenly turned on each other within small villages. Neighbor had turned on neighbor, and terrible slaughters occurred. It did seem to be a case of some kind of buried memory having been deliberately resurrected so that people could feel this hatred for each other.

I haven’t entirely abandoned the idea of writing a novel set in one of these places. I thought if I did that, it’d be more journalistic or historical. It would be about Yugoslavia disintegrating or about slavery in the British Empire or in America. But people would inevitably see it as being about a single issue.

I feel it’s appropriate as a novelist as opposed to a nonfiction writer to take a step back and acknowledge that these are recurring patterns in the human condition. You’ll see them repeated all through history. Because I wanted to say that I’m looking at a universal thing, and possibly an eternal thing, I really wanted to set it in a landscape that people could see I wasn’t literally interested in. It was largely metaphorical. And what happened in this landscape is something we can apply to recent history.

I’ve even thought about a novel where characters could hop from one sort of setting to another, so that we could get all these examples plus things like South Africa after apartheid and Japan after the Second World War. There probably is a novel to be written like that, where we can see a pattern emerging over and over again. Instead, I decided to write something that’s almost like a fable.

On writing emotional, rather than political, novels:
I’m not making a huge effort to be accurate. There are ogres in the mist and pixies coming out of the water. I’m not looking for any kind of clear moral, and I never do in my novels. I like to highlight some aspect of being human. I’m not really trying to say, so don’t do this, or do that. I’m saying, this is how it feels to me. Emotions are very important to me in a novel.

On "forgiving and forgetting" in romantic relationships:
I wanted to also apply the question of memory to a marriage. I was interested in the role of shared memories in a marriage, especially a long marriage like the one in the book. Most relationships that go for a long time, whether it’s parent-child, siblings, or friends -- over time there are things that we think would be better to just leave behind. There are always dark, uncomfortable passages. It might seem the best thing to just bury them. With something like a marriage you have to ask, if you just deny that something’s happened, and you literally forget it, what does that do to the love? Is it somehow inauthentic? Is it “real” love still? On the other hand, if you do actually go back and look at it squarely, would that destroy the love as well?

On writing about memory and forgetting as a kind of supernatural force:
I needed some way of everybody losing their memories, or their memories at least being very, very patchy. This might be a metaphor of a much more complicated and subtle thing that happens in our world: Our memories are controlled by the media, popular entertainment, history books, and museums. School textbooks are a significant, conspicuous example of people trying to control societal memory. There’s regularly a rouse about this in Japan, of course. Japanese school textbooks do not mention what the Japanese did in the Second World War in Southeast Asia.

It’s not magic, but somebody is exercising something like that. In my simplified, mythical landscape I created a kind of mist that had fallen over this land, that had a supernatural quality of making people forget. You could argue that it’s been done with a relatively good end in mind: to stop the cycle of vengeance. Sometimes you can only do this by forcing a kind of amnesia. The peace is held uneasily in my story, by this mist.

[In my book], this couple starts to think, well, we need our memories for our love to survive. Where can we go to find a solution to this? How can we make the memories come back? Hence it becomes a story about people who want this mist to go away, and people who want this mist to stay.

On classifying his books as science-fiction, fantasy, or other literary genres:
I suppose I could’ve set it in the future, and people would’ve called it sci-fi. If you do a story about long, long ago, people call it fantastical.

On why Marcel Proust is overrated:
To be absolutely honest, apart from the opening volume of Proust, I find him crushingly dull. The trouble with Proust is that sometimes you go through an absolutely wonderful passage, but then you have to go about 200 pages of intense French snobbery, high-society maneuverings and pure self-indulgence. It goes on and on and on and on. But every now and again, I suppose around memory, he can be beautiful.

I’m not sure he talks about memory in the way that I do in this book. He’s really good at capturing the emotional essence of memory. I suppose he got people like me thinking about writing about memory in the first place.

On the portrayal of memory in novels as opposed to movies:
Most novels at some point use memory in some way. And memory often works well in novels. It doesn’t work very well in films. It’s something to do with the form. We have the flashback device, which is very much a device -- it’s quite clunky. It’s a storytelling device rather than a serious attempt to capture the texture of memory. Every now and again someone tries to do it. I’m wondering if it’s also to do with the fact that when we remember, we tend to remember in stills. If I ask you now to recall some sort of key memory from your childhood, you may find that it’s still images. It’s full of emotions, and you have to figure out how the emotions fit into that tableau vivant. And then you start to say, what was happening just before this picture, and what happened just after that moment?

In novel-writing that’s quite natural. You’ve got that interior monologue that can supply that. The moving image seems to be contrary to the way our memory works. It’s very concrete and present-tense, and it unwinds in a regular way. That doesn’t seem to be anything like memory.

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