Interview: Kazuo Ishiguro, Author Of 'The Buried Giant' Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel in a decade follows an old couple on what might be their last journey: Hunting for memories of a son they think they had, in a land covered with memory-shrouding mists.
NPR logo

The Persistence — And Impermanence — Of Memory In 'The Buried Giant'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/389530345/389706223" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Persistence — And Impermanence — Of Memory In 'The Buried Giant'

The Persistence — And Impermanence — Of Memory In 'The Buried Giant'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/389530345/389706223" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kazuo Ishiguro has written his first novel in 10 years, and that's a literary event and a news story. The Man Booker Prize-winning author of "The Remains Of The Day" has gone even deeper into history to write a story that's both one couple's on-the-road tale and a mystery for a great civilization. It's set in post-Arthurian England, but it's no Camelot, with noble royals, clever sorcerers, strutting steeds and bold adventures. Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel is "The Buried Giant," and he joins us from his home in London. Thank you so much for being with us.

KAZUO ISHIGURO: Yeah, it's great to be here.

SIMON: What led you to set a novel in this period?

ISHIGURO: What happened to me was that for well on about 15 years now I've had this idea of writing a story about historical memory or societal memory. You know, the question how do societies remember and forget particularly their dark secrets or the dark memories? I have to say I was tempted to look at the actual contemporary events - the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide, France in the years after the Second World War when they had to really agree to forget what had happened during the occupation years. But I didn't really, in the end, want to set it down in any of those particular settings. I didn't want to write a book that looked like a piece of reportage or something that was specifically concerned about one moment in history. As a novelist, I wanted to retreat to something a little bit more metaphorical.

SIMON: Tell us about the couple at the center of this story who make this journey - Axel and Beatrice. I quite like how they call each other husband and princess.

ISHIGURO: They have been married a long time, you know, so they call each other by these names. This is essentially a kind of a love story, but, you know, when we usually say love story we imagine maybe a story about, you know, people getting together. We're usually talking about courtship stories. This isn't a love story in that sense. It's actually about the long haul of love. I was just telling you I was fascinated by how societies remember and forget. So exactly the same questions that fascinate me about a society that buries memories of past atrocities seem to apply to a marriage. So, yeah, at the center of this story there is this journey and this elderly couple maybe going on their last journey together. Across the land, they sense that.

SIMON: Did they think they remember they have a son?

ISHIGURO: They think they remember they have a son. They're not quite sure. I mean, the premise of this story is that there is some kind of a mist all over the land, which makes people forget. People are very amnesiac. And this couple feel - before it's too late - they want to recover their precious memories. It's very important to their relationship, to their marriage. They go on a journey to find their son. They think finding him will unlock many of the key memories that they've lost. And they fear finding those memories again, but they also long to find those memories again.

SIMON: Mr. Ishiguro, you're one of those rare writers who actually took a creative writing course.

ISHIGURO: I did take a creative writing course, you know, 30 years ago. And it was the first one ever in Britain. And the whole point of it was that there was no teaching. It was 12 months in which to discover whether or not one really was a writer. I went there with no great illusions that I was a writer, but when I arrived I was wanting to be a singer-songwriter.

SIMON: I've read that, and, I mean, I - if you'd become a rock star, would we not have your novels?

ISHIGURO: Well, I wouldn't have become a star. But, you know, I think my aspirations were more in the - in songwriting. You know, and I think there's a part of me that's always remained a songwriter, you know, even when I'm writing fiction. And I can see there's a big overlap between the songs I was writing when I was young and the stories I went on to write, you know? And many of the key aspects of, you know, what you might call my style as a novelist I think derives from when I was a songwriter.

SIMON: The lyricism, the imagery.

ISHIGURO: Well, maybe, but I would say that a lot of novelists go through their early stages writing apprentice novels. Sometimes they get published, sometimes they don't. I think I went through that phase writing songs. You know, I wrote kind of intensely autobiographical adolescent songs, you know, about adolescent angst. A song is essentially a first-person - a lonely first-person - narrative that's shared with an audience. And that's probably how I've seen most of my novels right up until the latest one, you know, "The Buried Giant." I mean, they're basically first-person narratives, you know, there's a voice sharing inner thoughts with an intimate audience, you know? And I think that whole approach is one that I'd arrived at in writing songs.

SIMON: And do I have this right? That a man often acclaimed as the great British novelist - of course, you were born in Nagasaki - and you began to learn English from cowboy films.

ISHIGURO: I was 5 years old when I arrived in Britain. Neither of my parents spoke good English - I don't think my mother spoke English at all. So I was very dependent on the English I picked up. You know, I never had any formal English lessons. But I'll come home, and I'll watch my favorite cowboy shows. And in those days, television was full of Western - American Western shows. And so it was very confusing for me as a Japanese kid.

I didn't know the difference between, you know, the way people spoke on the western frontier, you know, in "Bonanza," or "Wagon Train," and the way people spoke in Home Counties England. You know, so I would just turn up at school and say howdy and things like this. And people would be slightly taken aback. You know, but I've always had a love for Westerns since then. And I think I kind of saw in those Westerns something of the Samurai stories that I'd been brought up on as well. Sir Gawain, you know, the last of the Arthurian knights, now in old age, you know? He's a solitary rider against the kind of wide horizon. I mean, he's like a figure from one of those elegiac Westerns, you know, an aging gunfighter from a bygone era. You know, he's still, you know, one man and one horse against the big sky.

SIMON: Kazuo Ishiguro - his new novel, "The Buried Giant." Thank you so much for being with us.

ISHIGURO: And thank you. It's been a real pleasure.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.