Reading Kazuo Ishiguro

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“Then he took the sword in both hands and raised it—and Gawain’s posture took on an unmistakable grandeur.” – The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

My son gave me a signed first edition of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant, for Christmas. The book has been cast in some marketing circles as a fantasy, with allusions to King Arthur and Beowulf and the like, although the author has said he doesn’t set out to write in one particular genre or another and doesn’t like his books to be labeled as such.

Ishiguro is one of my favorite novelists, so I read every new book of his that comes out.

Never Let Me Go (dystopia/science fiction) and When We Were Orphans (in the tradition of the mystery/detective novel but with a literary twist) are my favorite Ishiguro novels. In fact, Never Let Me Go is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, one of Ishiguro’s more accessible stories. If you want to read Ishiguro, you might start with Never Let me Go, which was made into a movie starring Carey Mulligan. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (pre World War II) was also brought to the screen with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

As much as I enjoyed the screen versions of these books, there is something about Ishiguro’s writing that seems to be lost in a movie, at least for me. His novels are like dreams verging on nightmares from which you can’t awaken. Things don’t quite make sense in Ishiguro’s novels – you know this is not “reality” and that something is off, but what? The main character(s) are usually on a quest of one kind or another. They long for something that seems to be just out of reach.

You come to discern that Ishiguro’s characters are operating under some grand delusion. It’s unsettling, because you sense something familiar about the delusion; you begin to recognize that perhaps you operate under the very same delusion.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroEspecially if you’re of a certain age and you have children who have left the nest as I do, you might find The Buried Giant particularly affecting. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who leave their village and set off to find their son, whom they apparently haven’t seen in many years. They can’t remember the circumstances under which he left, or exactly where he lives, just as they can’t remember much of anything about their own pasts.

Axl and Beatrice aren’t unusual, though. No one in their village or anywhere else remembers much about their own past, nor do they seem to want to; a fine mist over the countryside, thought to be the breath of the dragon Querig, is said to be responsible for shrouding both personal and collective memory.

It is somewhere around the year 600 AD, and England is in ruin. Axl and Beatrice want to find their son, and they want to regain their memories. As they wander in search of their son, they meet others on their own quests. Clues and sightings suggest a terrible slaughter between the Saxons and Britons that no one remembers, just as no one recalls the dark secrets that lurk in their personal pasts. Perhaps the mist is in place so Britons and Saxons can live side by side without wanting to exact revenge.

As one reviewer pointed out, don’t we all operate under collective memory loss, or denial, that’s partly deliberate? Over climate change, for example, even though climate scientists have been warning us about it since the seventies? Or the atrocities of war?

Axl and Beatrice become caught up in a scheme to slay the dragon so memories can be recovered, but as Sir Gawain, the knight and nephew of the dead King Arthur, asks Beatrice, “Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”

Just as the Saxons and Britons fought a terrible war, you gradually learn there was upheaval in Axl and Beatrice’s relationship as well. What will happen when this couple, who seem to be so in love, recall their betrayals of each other? And what happened to their son?

Axl and Beatrice meet a boatman who they must rely on to help them cross a river in their journey. He says, “When travellers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years – that we see only rarely.”

Beatrice replies: “But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.”

Ishiguro builds up to a powerful and haunting conclusion. Like all of Ishiguro’s novels, I can’t get this one out of my mind.

There has been some interest in making The Buried Giant into a movie, but there are no definite plans yet.

Here is an excellent 4-minute video of Ishiguro talking about his novels made into movies.

In this interview, Ishiguro talks about how a book can be the raw material for a movie, which becomes something new and powerful in and of itself; how literary genres are breaking down and overlapping in exciting ways; and how he embraces the Leonard Cohen model of artistry and aging in which the artist looks to aging as new material for his/her art.


Kazuo Ishiguro authograph


Have you read The Buried Giant or other novels by Ishiguro? Do you have a favorite? Have you seen the movie versions of Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go?






21 thoughts on “Reading Kazuo Ishiguro”

  1. I listened to this on audio, and I felt it was a great disservice to my understanding. The narrator was truly excellent, but those fine quotes you included in your post escaped my attention while I was driving and listening. I ended up being mostly confused: they’re looking for their son and he’s dead on an island? How did he die? Why did he leave? And, as to the ending, does the boatman take both of them across at the end? I was left with Axl wading off into the water…now, I know the Japanese are wonderful at not tying up loose ends, it’s a great gift of their writing whereas I find Americans want a beginning/middle/end to their stories. But, I really feel I ought to read this with my eyes, unless you can shed any light. 🙂

    Love that your son gave you an autographed edition. It is a worthy present in and of itself, but all the more so that he thought of you so carefully.

    1. I’m not sure how it would be listening as I drive, I’m not very good at multi-tasking, and I don’t usually drive long distances anyway, so the book reading experience for me would be very disjointed.
      Often, Ishiguro doesn’t explain things explicitly. However, that said, I think if you were to read it, it’s stated explicitly the situation with the son; the scene at the conclusion with the boatmen is fairly straightforward. For me, much of the power of the story came to a climax and resolution in that scene. Don’t want to say more because of spoilers!

  2. Those books are absolutely stunning!!

    I remember being in my high school book club when “Never Let Me Go” came out. We read it and I remember loving it and being shocked and amazed at the same time. Great memories. I haven’t read any more of his novels in the past 10 years. So I must rectify this!

  3. Valorie,

    I liked Never Let You Go by this author but haven’t read Buried Giant yet. You make me want to try it though.

    BTW- thanks for the comment on my Joyce May ard review. I was surprised when I read about her and Salinger as well. I have her other nf reserved at the library so looking forward to that.

    1. I don’t follow many authors on Facebook but I follow her . She doesn’t post too often but when she does it’s always interesting . She took a lot of flak for publishing her memoir that included her time with Salinger and “exposing” him. When she republished it a few years later people were more understanding that yes, as a woman she had the right to tell that story.

  4. What a wonderful review, Valorie. I want to read The Buried Giant, have wanted to do so ever since I saw the beautiful cover at a bookstore with that gorgeous font, without knowing what the book was about. I think yours was the first in-depth review I have read. Of course, now I want to read the book even more than before.
    I love the pictures, especially the first one. I really like how the book reflects in the surface of the table. Is the one with a metal clasp a book or notebook?

    1. Hi Delia! It’s a journal; I’m so enthralled with fancy journals and patterns on the edge of pages like this. Yes the cover design of Buried Giant is stunning. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or any other Ishiguro novel you read.

      1. It’s a journal! I suspected that. It’s lovely. I like journals too. I want to make my own at some point but it won’t look as lovely as this one. The little metal clasp – I thought it was shaped like a little guy peering over the cover. 🙂

        I hope to read The Buried Giant this year and will probably write a review about it too.

  5. What a nice gift from your son – he knows you well, I think. As you know, I’m hoping to get to Never Let Me Go this year. But, I have also wanted to read Remains of the Day (I saw the movie a long time ago and barely remember it now), and now you have piqued my interest in this one. I love the quotes you included!

  6. I loved this post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Valorie. 🙂 The cover is gorgeous too, isn’t it? The only Ishiguro book that I have in my stash is ‘The Remains of the Day’, which I haven’t read yet. Now that you have mentioned that ‘Never Let Me Go’ is one of your favourite novels, I am determined to start Ishiguro with that. 🙂

  7. Excellent review – you’ve really given me a sense of what the book is about and it sounds fascinating!

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