Ishiguro Kazuo

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

This book comes freighted with more expectations than many – Ishiguro may, after all, be the only novelist of his lauded generation who has never produced a bad or even mediocre novel. But there are fears, too – his last two books (Never Let Me Go, and the story cycle Nocturnes) are my least favourites. Is he on the slide?

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

My first response to The Buried Giant was to realise how rudderless we feel in the teeth of a new book which is really new, sui generis, and how much we rely on – or at least use as a springboard – existing and received opinion about strange classics. I first read it a couple of months before publication, and came away buzzing with admiration but otherwise not knowing precisely what to think. (It was, I think, my desire for precision that was the problem.) I spoke to several others who had read it early, and a theme recurred – “befuddled”, “scratching my head”, “scrambled” – which reassured me at least that I had not missed something blindingly obvious.

So how can a book which, on many levels, baffles the reader be a rewarding experience? Easy: because that is not the reader’s only response. There is a huge amount in this book – it contains multitudes – and its half-life after reading is long. Part of my problem with it was not a problem with it at all: that afterwards, I couldn’t settle for a time into anything else as I kept wanting to return to The Buried Giant. Also it emphasises that a book like this is not a mystery to be solved, but a reflection and representation of life which is – let’s say – a mystery we all take part in.

What does it contain? It has some familiar themes for readers of Ishiguro’s previous novels, though mainly from the trickier of his books such as The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans: a dreamlike logic which telescopes locations and fuzzes the facts, and narrative detours on a quest the protagonists don’t really understand themselves. It also holds some firsts for Ishiguro, like a portrait of a marriage, and switches in narrators, though most of the story is told in the third person (another first). This is interesting because until now, Ishiguro has relied to some extent on his narrators’ ignorance of reality for his effects. Here, he brings it into the open by setting his story in a land where people’s memories are failing them.

In terms of setting, The Buried Giant follows Never Let Me Go in using an alternative historic England: this time, around the fifth or sixth century AD, when the Britons are being pushed west by the incoming Saxons, and people share their space with ogres, pixies and dragons. The inclusion of these creatures means the novel will inevitably be referred to as fantasy, and if the simple presence of supernatural creatures makes it fantasy, then so it is. But this would be to overlook the fact that these elements are not a primary purpose of the book, any more than the science fictional nature of Kathy and her colleagues’ existence in Never Let Me Go was the centre of that book. Wikipedia defines fantasy literature as “written works that utilise the motifs, themes and stylistic approaches expected in the fantasy genre.” This is pretty circular, but it’s clear that The Buried Giant does not conform to any expectations, genre-based or otherwise. When devilish creatures are encountered, they’re despatched almost as an aside, or turn out to be weak and elderly and hardly worth battling. This deliberate diminution of effect goes all the way through the book from the title down: the buried giant referred to is a mound on the land that the protagonists worry about crossing, so they decide to circumnavigate it. We expect difficulties, but the next time we encounter them, they have passed it without incident.

‘They’ are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple of Britons who live in a village where a council makes edicts that are unexplained (such as that Axl and Beatrice are not permitted a candle in their chamber), and people quickly forget those who disappear, even when they return. “The mist” is how Axl and Beatrice refer to the clouding of memory which affects everything and everyone: they cannot even remember if they have a son, though they quickly decide that they have and that they must go to his village, though they are not quite sure where it is. (“Already these recollections were growing confused, in much the way a dream does in the seconds after waking.”) So the story proceeds by ellipsis and omission, and most of the characters’ questions, like the reader’s, will never be answered. Axl and Beatrice’s nonexistent memories of their son are representative of a wider phenomenon: people alight on ideas which then become solid, the mind grasping at any detail, however vague, to build a strong conviction from nothing but air. Simultaneously, in the absence of knowledge, superstition runs amok. There is much discussion between Axl and Beatrice of the benefits of memory: they know they love one another (they are almost comically devoted) but have no evidence how or why. They want to retrieve their memories, but worry that these might dredge up experiences best forgotten. Like the buried giant, memories may best be left undisturbed. Yet what do we have but our memories, and what are our character and relationships based on but what we have known so far?

This paradox of memory is applied more broadly in the book. Our Britons encounter a Saxon warrior, Wistan, and we might expect conflict, but he is respectful and recalls that he was trained by a Briton. Yet distrust is not far away, and it is not difficult to see modern parallels in the theme of two peoples warring for reasons based only on memory and not on personal experience: future generations inheriting grievances like genetic mutations. We also learn, later in the book, of another purpose for the imagery of the buried giant: once a feared creature is killed, Wistan predicts that

the giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbours’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging.

At this point The Buried Giant seemed like another first for Ishiguro: a political book, reminding us of post-war regimes like Iraq.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

Along their journey, Axl and Beatrice encounter many other people, some of whom, as in The Unconsoled, seem to represent aspect of their own characters and lives – a woman abandoned without her husband by a boatman expresses Beatrice’s own anxieties about being left by Axl, and Edwin, a boy they take with them after he is forced to flee his village, acts as a surrogate for their putative son – as does, more confusingly still, a soldier they meet while with Edwin. They also meet Sir Gawain, still pottering about in his old age and not quite getting around to fulfilling King Arthur’s demands of him, and getting pretty shirty when reminded of his failure. Many of these encounters are enlightening (or at least cast interesting shadows), but sometimes the diversions on the quest and the new characters are duller than must have been intended. In particular, a long stretch of the novel set in a monastery and immediately after the characters leave, sags dangerously and had me hoping for a magic spell to get to the other side.

It’s possible to see how the entire book might have that effect on some readers. Ishiguro repeatedly frustrates any hopes for a usual narrative trajectory, muffles noise, and hints at things which are never explicitly revealed. It is because of this that, despite the language being simple, despite every action and event being clearly described, we end up with such a thoroughly enigmatic novel – a magical mystery tour. The narrative voice is seamlessly executed, with no authorial trace – Ishiguro never hammers things home for the reader, or even taps them lightly – and this makes it immersive and engaging. The other aspect of The Buried Giant that pushed it higher in my estimation was the relationship between Axl and Beatrice. The uncertainty and imbalance of their love moves through the book from almost nauseatingly uxorious (“Still here, princess”) to horribly upsetting (if I mention pixies at this point, those who have read the book will nod solemnly). Their dialogue is more often crosstalk than coherence, as they constantly disagree over memories, and they exhibit a combination of blithe reassurance and anxious caution that looks very like much familial love. As the book progressed, I started to think more and more of how their lack of memories were a kind of death, and as with Never Let Me Go, death and how we approach it and live with it looms large in this book.

I have written 1,500 words on The Buried Giant without really doing much more than summarising what I see as the main points. It is too big for me to do more than kick its tyres and nod appreciatively. It is frustrating and as far from perfect as we might expect a great novel to be, and part of my appreciation may well be an awestruck belief that what I don’t fully grasp must be better than me. It is a book that will be discussed and that will endure, and it has the rare feel of a publishing event which is also a literary event. It will not supplant The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go in popular affection, but for those readers who love a book that asks more than it answers: there’s a journey you must go on, and no more delay.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Nocturnes

According to a piece in the Guardian last week, the reason why so many books are published at the beginning of the month is to take advantage of retailers’ book-of-the-month promotions. This week sees the publication, on the same day, of much-vaunted new books by Colm Tóibín, A.S. Byatt, Adam Foulds, Reif Larsen and many others. Taking his place in the crowd is Kazuo Ishiguro with Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. After the slight disappointment of Tóibín’s Brooklyn, I wondered whether Ishiguro – the biggest name for me in this week’s launches – might fare better.


In a sense he was bound to, as my expectations were not high. Ishiguro, to me, achieves his greatest effects cumulatively, at length – at over 500 pages’ length in his most interesting novel The Unconsoled – so I doubted whether a bunch of stories would satisfy. Then I read in an interview that this book was written sequentially, as a collection, rather than just gathering existing stories together. Well, I thought, that changes everything: he might have wasted his own time as well as mine.

Nocturnes retains some aspects of Ishiguro’s world which are familiar to us – the elegant, understated language used by his narrators, the sense of people speaking not just at cross purposes but in active denial of communication, characters paralysed by the past – but others which are new: contemporary settings; stories where the storyteller is not – necessarily – the central character; and even unaccustomed evidence of Ishiguro comedy.

A theme of Nocturnes – as the ‘nightfall’ part of the subtitle suggests – is the regret which comes from failed (and unexplored) potential. In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro contemplated the brevity of human existence, and now he moves this consideration from allegory to reality. In relation to this, the interview linked above is instructive in detailing Ishiguro’s concerns these days (not least the heading: “There comes a point when you can count the number of books you’re going to write before you die. And you think, God, there’s only four left”):

It’s difficult for me – when I meet certain old friends, I try not to make any reference at all to certain things I do in this world. One of my oldest friends comes round to play music and we’re still close. He’s a person I’ve known since I was 12, and we’ve managed to keep that friendship going really by pretending that I’m not a successful writer.

He speaks also of his sympathy for people – friends – who were “convinced that they were geniuses … addicted to the idea that [they] have tremendous potential” but “just don’t have the technique.” This is rendered absurd in one story, ‘Cellists’, where a character decides that her potential is such a fragile flower that to explore it would risk destroying it altogether (the likely outcome for most of us). In another, ‘Crooner’, a jobbing musician in the cafe orchestras of San Marco in Venice finally gets to work with one of the musical greats, but only after the latter’s career has faltered. A character from this story reappears in ‘Nocturne’, the longest story, which is set in a cosmetic surgery unit where another musician has come to revive his career. Here Ishiguro dissects how fame, which plays hideous tricks on the brain, and modern notions of celebrity interact with this sense of overlooked potential.

Earlier I said we were unaccustomed to comedy in Ishiguro. In fact comedy, in the form of baffling farce, has been seen before in The Unconsoled (and the tragic comedy of the human condition might be said to be one of Ishiguro’s recurring themes), and it’s this book which was brought to mind in the best story, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’. I felt it was the best because of its willingness to leave so much unsaid, rippling beneath the surface and hidden from the reader in the years building up to the story. Our narrator is Ray, a musician who finds himself caught between two old friends, Emily and Charlie, as their marriage falls apart. Yet we begin to learn things about Ray despite his attempts to tell his friends’ story, and not his own. Estranged but still living together, they communicate only through criticism of Ray, in hilariously inappropriate terms:

‘He can’t expect many of that tribe to survive!’ Charlie boomed from the hall. I could hear he had his suitcase out there now. ‘It’s all very well behaving like an adolescent ten years after you’ve ceased to be one. But to carry on like this when you’re nearly fifty!’

‘I’m only forty-seven…’

‘What do you mean, you’re only forty-seven?’ Emily’s voice was unnecessarily loud given I was sitting right next to her. ‘Only forty-seven. This “only”, this is what’s destroying your life, Raymond. Only, only, only. Only doing my best. Only forty-seven. Soon you’ll be only sixty-seven and only going round in bloody circles trying to find a bloody roof to keep over your head!’

‘He needs to get his bloody arse together!’ Charlie yelled down the staircase. ‘Fucking well pull his socks up until they’re touching his fucking balls!’

This story culminates in grotesque physical comedy, with Raymond imitating a dog on all fours in the kitchen as he attempts to conceal an embarrassing incursion into Emily’s privacy (which was in turn an embarrassing incursion into his own privacy). It’s beautifully judged, amusing mainly because it is so blatantly forced, and wildly over-the-top while underpinning a subtle story of dissolution and regret. In that sense, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ ranks along with his best work, because it is quintessential Ishiguro, but also because it takes his work into a new dimension. For that reason, Nocturnes succeeds.