An artist’s concern is to capture beauty wherever he finds it.
– Kazuo Ishiguro, British novelist of Japanese origin, from An Artist of the Floating World
The last time I saw the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro at a reading was 10 years ago at the now-defunct bookstore, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, when his then-latest novel, Never Let Me Go, came out. I remembered being stunned that he had advocated against setting novels in a specific time and place. The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans, A Pale View of the Hills, An Artist of the Floating World – these novels were set in a specific time and place and they captured that time and place so exquisitely. He advocated for universality because that allowed for inclusivity – more readers to be drawn in interest wise and thus a greater opportunity for the writer to touch a greater number of readers. I wasn’t convinced because I thought then and still think today that themes of humanity can come through successfully from a particular person, time, and place, but any time a great novelist speaks, I deeply consider what he or she says.
Ishiguro was speaking in defense of Never Let Me Go, his science fiction-genre novel, a departure from his earlier works. I confess that I tried to read Never Let Me Go two different times when it first came out, and I just couldn’t get into it. Interestingly, Ishiguro told us that he wrote the novel twice in the 1990s. He wanted to write about characters having to face a limited lifestyle in futuristic England. He had two pieces of the puzzle but needed a “situation to make it work.” “Out of desperation, I wanted to get this thing to work, to get my flying machine to fly,” he told us. “Only when it’s flying do I see so many rich things out there when you’re trying to get your writing to work. There are so many ways to tell a story.” Indeed, there are so many ways to tell a story. There are so many choices a writer makes – what to tell, what to leave out, which are traits of Ishiguro’s first-person narrators that I admire so deeply. Ishiguro deftly shows us flawed protagonists who struggle with what to tell us and what to leave buried.
The Buried Giant
Interestingly, his latest novel The Buried Giant is set at a time in Britain long after the Romans withdrew from the country in the fifth century. But the theme of his previous novels is inherent in The Buried Giant. He told the capacity crowd that this novel is about forgetting and remembering and exploring these questions: When is it time really to face up to the past? When is it better to remember, when is it better to forget – both as an individual and as a nation? When Ishiguro was working through the theme of remembering the past from a nation perspective, he thought of the potential settings – science fiction, France after WWII, and apartheid South Africa. But he set it in Britain during the country’s “blank history” of ethnic cleansing. “That appealed to me to stand metaphorically for the uneasy peace between two factions,” he explained.
And he took on the genre of a fable – mythic but grounded in the physical. He said he “could do something special” with ogres, wolves, and bears as supernatural characters. Ishiguro confessed to not knowing Arthurian times very well, but he is well-versed in Japanese folk tales, is obsessed with Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and has a soft spot for Sherlock Holmes (as a child) and western movies. The samurai comes to a town that has a demon problem. The aging, lonely gunslinger and his horse can’t accept that they’re past their prime.
The Buried Giant is also about two people growing old together and wrestling with memory and forgetfulness, against the backdrop of a nation trying to forget what one faction has done to another within its borders. As for the love story theme, Ishiguro was exploring what happens to a couple’s love for one another if and when they lose their shared memories. “There’s a real need on our part to see everything good and bad, to withstand everything,” he said, when two people share their lives.
Berkeley roots, singer/songwriter
Berkeley holds a special place for Ishiguro because after his schooling, at age 29, he came to America and hitchhiked along the west coast in the 1970s. He was a singer/songwriter at the time and landed in San Francisco – specifically Berkeley – with his guitar and his rucksack because that’s where his musical heroes hailed from and it was also the “center” of the American counter-culture. He revealed that he had slept in the hillsides and worked at a baby food factory for six months.
The turning point in his life came when his guitar was stolen in San Francisco. He admitted that the record company rejections also played a hand in his decision to switch from being a singer/songwriter to a novelist. He skipped the “early bad stages” a writer endures because his songs were full of the adolescent angst and experimental purple prose, which often emerge in the works of first-time writers. Being a singer/songwriter aided him as a writer in other ways. “Songs have so few words,” and the words are “below the surface,” according to Ishiguro. He added, “The transaction is very first-person intimate, confessional. It’s the kind of atmosphere created in first-person narratives.” Ah, that makes sense, given how Ishiguro approaches his novels!
Following the Q&A format with novelist Michael David Lukas, Ishiguro responded to a young woman’s revelation that in her high school world literature course he “represented” Asia. Of course, everyone laughed, including Ishiguro. He admitted that early in his career he couldn’t help but think of himself as representing Japan to British and felt that his job was “explaining the mysterious Japanese mind to the western world.” Although he only spent the first five years of his life in Japan, at a certain point he made a “conscious decision to be a Japanese writer.” But he got very frustrated trying to write about “human questions, stuff that we all share, universal themes” within the narrow framework of “representing Japan” So when he wrote his third novel, The Remains of the Day, it was a turning point in his life. “I don’t want to represent Asia. I just want to be a novelist not a cultural correspondent,” he said at the time and still is his strong belief today.
Ishiguro responded to questions posed by audience members who had read The Buried Giant and wanted him to comment on what he called its “picaresque providential ending.” He said he is trying to leave the reader with a certain emotion but no practical suggestions on how to solve anything. He concluded, “My main ambition is simply to share emotions. It’s not a bad thing. We need fiction. We need music. So people can share emotions with one another. It’s not a huge thing, but I think it is, ultimately.” Indeed, after a wonderful evening of him sharing his backstory and his new novel, I can’t wait to read The Buried Giant.