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An amnesia-inducing mist, a dragon quest, an Arthurian knight who patrols the highlands — Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant might not sound like a post-9/11 novel but, at least in the most literal sense, that is how it began. The British writer first found himself talking about the project shortly after the attacks on New York and Washington, at a readers’ event in Japan. “All I had at that point was that I wanted to write a book about how societies remember and forget,” he says. “When is it better just to move on? We all face that question as individuals but I had become more and more fascinated by how it applied to countries. I was quite conscious that I was addressing a Japanese audience and, of course, I think Japan has forgotten a huge chunk of what happened in the second world war.”
Ishiguro was reading widely on examples of national memory being mobilised or suppressed — France after the occupation, the Rwandan genocide, South Africa’s post-apartheid reckoning, the disintegration of Yugoslavia — and a few years later would chair a debate on the subject at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Yet he struggled to give form to his ideas. “Every time I tried to put it down in one of these historical settings it didn’t feel right,” he says. “I wanted to step back and write a novel that was a little more metaphorical, a little more universal.”
The inspiration came eventually in 2004 from the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, and specifically from a couple of stanzas that described the hero’s journey through an imagined Arthurian Britain. “These few lines really sparked something in me,” says Ishiguro. “I particularly liked the fact that ogres were mentioned just in passing, as though they were like untamed bulls, an everyday hazard that Gawain had to contend with. Suddenly, I could see this whole landscape open up and I thought, well, maybe I could do something with this.”
We are sitting in Ishiguro’s bright front room in Golders Green, north London. The onslaught of publicity for the new book is only just beginning and there is a sense of civilised, sociable family life continuing for now; surfaces are scattered with evidence of unhurried intellectual endeavour and varied cultural enthusiasms, foreign policy journals competing for space with proof-copies of novels and bossa nova sheet music. After I comment admiringly on his collection of guitars he gives me a blast of gypsy jazz on a Django-style acoustic, and later a rendition of “Garota de Ipanema”, sung in the Portuguese and accompanied on his preferred instrument, a Martin. His wife Lorna, a former social worker, pops in and out — “call him Ish, everyone does,” she insists — and such is the informality that it is easy to forget that I am here to interview one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful authors.
Lorna has often been a sounding board for Ishiguro but seldom has she played such a crucial role as in the case of The Buried Giant. “About 50 or 60 pages in, maybe slightly more, I thought, well, maybe I’ll show Lorna this,” says Ishiguro. “And she looked at it and said: ‘This is appalling — this won’t do.’ I said: ‘So what’s wrong with it? What should I change?’ She said: ‘You can’t change anything. You’ll just have to start again from scratch; completely from scratch.’”
Ishiguro couldn’t face the job of reconstruction immediately, turning instead to the short-story collection that would be published as Nocturnes in 2009. But when he did return to the Dark Ages, the approach was different. “The first time I had a go at this thing it was a bit like Sir Walter Scott, over-egged with a kind of period vernacular. The second time around I just tried to keep the language as simple as possible. I worked more at taking words from what you or I would say rather than adding things like ‘prithee’ — just by removing prepositions or the odd word here and there, I ended up with something that sounded slightly odd or slightly foreign.”
It is fitting that this process of subtraction should result in a novel defined by absences. The Buried Giant takes us into a world that the Romans have recently left, their crumbling roads and villas a reproach to the sixth-century Britons whose rude settlements are now threatened by Saxon settlers arriving from the east. The migrants’ advance has been halted under the leadership of a now-dead king, Arthur — “the Nigel Farage of his day,” quips Ishiguro — and the two groups coexist uneasily across the territory into which an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set out to find their lost son. Along the way we encounter pixies, dragons and, yes, ogres, as the ailing Beatrice becomes more and more convinced that the plague of forgetfulness afflicting everyone obscures a trauma she and her husband must confront.
Did Ishiguro worry that there might some critical resistance to the supernatural elements of The Buried Giant? “Every book feels like a big risk to me,” he replies. “Maybe other people are more confident. With Never Let Me Go  I thought, God, it’s like a sci-fi book. People are not going to like this.” It was similar with The Remains of the Day, the butler’s reverie that won Ishiguro the Man Booker Prize in 1989: “I’d made a reputation as a kind of Japanese writer, a kind of foreign correspondent based in London. And to write a book that was nothing to do with Japan felt like a big risk at the time.”
Remains is a reminder that, for all his experiments with genre and setting, Ishiguro is a novelist of unusual thematic consistency. Born in Nagasaki in 1954 and brought up from the age of five in Guildford, Surrey, he has often chided those who assume too much from his background. But his work, nonetheless, has been marked by a preoccupation with the convulsions of the mid-20th century. The protagonists of A Pale View of Hills (1982), An Artist of the Floating World (1986) and Remains all live, in their different ways, in the shadow of the second world war, their narratives unfolding as the layers of self-deception are stripped away.
The Buried Giant is about more than memory and conflict, however; it is also a meditation on love and mortality, and in this respect perhaps the most striking resonances are with Never Let Me Go, about a group of cloned students in a parallel present growing up to face their destiny as “donors”. In both novels there are characters, as Ishiguro puts it, who won’t let go of the idea that their love is so strong they can, if not exactly overcome death, then at least win some concessions. “By the time I finish one book part of the subject matter for the next one has already been set. But I don’t mind that,” he says, “with writers I admire and also with film-makers I admire this happens as well. There’s quite an overlap between projects.”
For now, the continuing Ishiguro project must be put on hold. Soon he will be embarking on a promotional tour to the US, followed later in the year by France, Japan, Italy, Germany and perhaps Greece as well. “My attitude is that since I kind of have to do this, I’m going to try to get as much out of it as possible,” he says. “I try to figure out what’s going on in these places.”
I ask about what Ishiguro has referred to in the past as the “Danish journalist” issue — his concern with translatability and avoiding the parochial. “That’s instinctive on my part,” he says. “I spend all my time having to explain my books to people around the world and I see these readers in front of me at events. So when I’m sitting down to write a novel, that’s who I’m writing for. I know it because I physically meet them. I’ve grown up as a novelist always aware that some things might be of local interest here in Britain but they are not going to be a suitable project for me.”
Is there sometimes a cost to this? In recent years a debate has grown up around the rise of what is referred to as the “global novel” — an often pejorative category whose leading exponents, so the argument goes, are neglecting the fertile particularity of their own national literary cultures in order to cater for an international (and, especially, American) readership.
“I have a lot of sympathy for the view that there is a danger in our culture becoming homogenised,” says Ishiguro, pointing to the huge commercial clout of Hollywood. “But I would say that literary cultures, in my experience, are slightly more siloed-up because of the linguistic walls. It hasn’t gone the way of cinema, where there are just two or three powerful distribution networks that you’ve got to be a part of.”
Nor does he think Haruki Murakami, a writer whose name often comes up in this discussion, is a good example of homogenisation. “I don’t think he’s consciously written for an international market. This is a big mistake about Japan. Maybe some people think Japanese people still live in paper houses with cherry blossoms outside. They don’t. They live in the world of Haruki Murakami. They listen to the kind of music that Murakami’s characters listen to. They haven’t, for generations, been sitting on tatami and contemplating carp and going out and committing hara-kiri because they’re ashamed. That kind of thing doesn’t happen. So sometimes something that might look like it’s written for the international market is just a reflection of what the world is like now.”
After the tour, Ishiguro expects that The Buried Giant will at some stage take the form of a film — something that a glance around the room, with its DVD-packed alcoves and rolled-up screen drawing the eye to a projector on the opposite wall, suggests is more of a priority for him than for many writers. He acknowledges that this adaptation will hold particular challenges. With his previous films, he says, there wasn’t an obvious genre to receive them — certainly not in the case of Never Let Me Go, and to an extent also with The Remains of the Day, which needn’t have been the classic Merchant-Ivory production it became. (Ishiguro surprises me here with the fact, recently revealed by John Cleese in his autobiography, that the comic actor was the first person to be approached to play the part of the repressed butler Stevens.) “To some extent, whoever makes the film of The Buried Giant will have to resist the temptation to just make it fit a very well-trodden swords-and-sandals genre.” But Ishiguro is encouraged on this score by the fact that the rights have been bought by Scott Rudin, a producer whose recent credits include The Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain Phillips and Inside Llewyn Davis.
Ishiguro is part of a generation of novelists whose achievements have often been measured against one another. Thinking back to that 1983 group photograph of him alongside Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and other members of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” list, I wonder what the 60-year-old writer makes now of his theory, formulated a quarter of a century ago, that most in his profession peak before 45. Ishiguro smiles, obligingly reeling off a list of greats to whom this applies: Austen, the Brontës, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, Mailer. “But the point of that observation wasn’t to freak out older writers, it was to guard against complacency,” he says. “It was really to say, I’ve got to go for it now because time is short. And it’s important to think of writers in their twenties and thirties as serious contenders. I feel that very strongly today. They should be encouraged to think of themselves as the major contenders in changing the literary landscape, not as ‘up-and-coming’.”
Among the generation of writers below him Ishiguro singles out David Mitchell, whose debut Ghostwritten he remembers reading when it came out in 1999. “It was like listening to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or something. It just showcased so many talents.” He also acknowledges the influence on his own work of Mitchell and his peers, a cohort that Ishiguro sees as more willing than his own to mash genres and styles. “With Never Let Me Go, I’m not sure I would have had the courage or even the inclination to use a sci-fi premise if it wasn’t for people like that. Even with The Buried Giant, someone might say that I’ve gone into the fantasy genre. Perhaps I might worry about that more were it not for the climate set by a younger generation of writers, where almost anything goes.”
It is an appealing paradox to end with: could this respect for younger writers partly explain Ishiguro’s own continuing vitality as an artist? Either way, if you want to make the case against the Ishiguro theory, the evidence is accumulating steadily in this corner of Golders Green.
Lorien Kite is the FT’s books editor. He will be interviewing Kazuo Ishiguro at a special FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival event on Thursday March 12. oxfordliteraryfestival.org
Photograph: Howard Sooley