Why Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro used dragons and pixies to explore history
His novel "The Buried Giant" is written like an old folk tale, but comments on current issues at the heart of civil wars, family feuds and divorces. DW interviewed the 2017 Nobel Prize laureate two years ago.
DW: How would you react to the following headline: '"Kazuo Ishiguro goes Game of Thrones"?
Kazuo Ishiguro: It might help to sell a few books, but I would fear that "Game of Thrones" fans might not like my book. I never went into this project thinking I'm going to write a book like Tolkien's or "Game of Thrones." I started out in a very different place: I was at first tempted to set my novel in a real modern historical setting.
Now your novel is set in Britain in the fifth century. Why did you choose that time and place as a setting for your book?
One thing that is appealing about that period is that nobody knows really what happened. There is a big blank of almost a hundred years in British history between when the Romans left and when the Anglo-Saxons settled – it's a kind of a memory lapse. There is no historical evidence. That gives me a certain amount of freedom as a novelist.
"The Buried Giant" is not a history book, it is a very entertaining novel. Is it pure fantasy? Or a novel beyond any genre?
I'm not very good with genres, I don't really understand them. When I try to write a book I'm never really thinking very conscientiously about genres. How I write is that I start with an idea that I very much want to express. And that idea often isn't set in any time or place. These are often ideas that I have written down and thought about. The different tools and elements that I needed, that I thought would work best for this novel just ended up being things like dragons and ogres.
The key questions in this novel were: When is it better for a nation to forget some dark passages from its recent history and when is it better to face these bad memories? When is it better to forget, when is it better to remember? I wanted to create a story that felt almost like an old folktale to suggest that this is something that human beings go through throughout history. As long as we have existed as human beings, we have divided ourselves into tribes and we had to struggle with this question about societal memory. These questions keep coming back to haunt humanity over and over again.
Isn't this a very difficult question for a novel that comes in the disguise of a fantasy tale?
It is also really a love story. I'm not only concerned with nations remembering or forgetting. Many families, many marriages have dark episodes that everyone has agreed to just forget in order to allow the bond to strengthen again. But the same question emerges there too: How long can you carry on agreeing to be silent? Can you just go on forever and ever like that? Probably not - at some point these dark issues show up again.
A very important aspect of my novel is a story about an old couple who have lost their memories. And they want them back. But they also fear what would happen when the bad memories come back with the good memories. Will it destroy their love? They happen to live in a society that is also threatened by memories coming back – the reemergence of these memories could lead to civil war.
Kazuo Ishiguro, "The Buried Giant," Knopf, March 2015, 317 pages
That's what the story of "Buried Giant" is about: A mysterious forgetfulness has fallen over the land, but do people want the memories to come back or not?
Have you found an answer?
I wasn't really looking for an answer. Because I knew from the beginning there is no simple answer. I just wanted to articulate this question for the readers: Isn't this one of the central questions that we have struggled with throughout our lives, both as nations and as individual human beings?
Your novel might suggest that it is not always good for societies to remember and openly discuss everything. Is that true?
Every country I can think of has something that they have buried from their history.
There is almost like an agreement: Be silent about it. And sometimes there is a very good reason to do that because it stops a further cycle of war and violence. It may stop a society from disintegrating altogether. And the same thing can apply to a family or to a marriage.
The book does not claim that it is good to forget or that we should always remember. As a novelist, I'm not arguing any kind of thesis. What I'm trying to do is to capture the emotions of ordinary people who are caught in these dilemmas. I don't write novels in order to make any kind of point. If that were my goal, I'd rather write a disciplined essay.
To always, always remember is often a weapon that is used by political leaders who want to preserve a hatred in the community and to prolong a war. For Germans, at a particular point in history, the danger was not to remember enough. It can be very dangerous as well to ignore the danger of memory being used as a weapon for hatred and to mobilize militarism.
In Germany there is a strong belief that it is important to be very conscious of our historical past. The topic of our historical and cultural memory is often discussed. In Asia it's very different, people often tell you, they cannot afford to look at the past, that one has to look towards the future. Is your novel a discussion on this fine line?
It's a kind of a discussion. Human beings have always struggled to find a balance. How much forgetting is desirable? How much remembering is desirable? Since I'm here in Germany I have to say West Germany after the Second World War is an example where that balance was achieved in an almost perfect way. But I think there are times when it is necessary to forget, to allow a society to rebuild itself and not descent into civil war and disintegration. There is never an easy answer to how you achieve that balance.
DW met Kazuo Ishiguro during the International Literature Festival in Berlin, in 2015
Forgetting too much means that terrible injustices go unpunished and you build up a huge amount of hatred and anger on the part of the people who feel they have suffered.
But if you remember too much, then a society could fall into a never-ending cycle of revenge and hatred. And we can see many parts of the world, like the Middle East, where they just can't stop the cycle. Perhaps the best thing there would be some sort of memory loss. Just so there is a chance for peace to come.
Migration – the overwhelming topic of our days – is something that happened throughout history. Your novel is a historical fantasy set at the end of the Iron Age when the Roman-Celtic powers were overtaken by Anglo-Saxon immigrants. Can your book be read as a commentary on current events and the recent past?
I started writing the novel about 15 years ago, so obviously I wasn't thinking about the current refugee crises. But when I started to think about how to write this story I was actually thinking about the wars in old Yugoslavia as it disintegrated, and particularly what happened in Bosnia, where two groups of people who had been living in peace for at least one generation suddenly turned on each other and committed terrible violence. And a similar thing happened in Rwanda in the 90s as well.
So my starting point for this story was this question about a nation where people from different traditions and different religious believe to have learned, apparently, to live side by side and actually become friendly and then for some reason something comes along, often triggered by some dark memory of enmity from the past, and terrible violence breaks out.
My novel is about wars, so it is perhaps about the things that produce the refugees. We see the refugees as a kind of symptom, but at the heart of the problem are wars and huge, violent differences. The violence that obliges people to abandon their homes and take great risks and even die, trying to find safety.
This interview was conducted by Sabine Peschel in September 2015.