Why Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro used dragons and pixies to explore history


2017: Kazuo Ishiguro

Japan-born British novelist, screenwriter and short story writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 award. His most renowned novel, "The Remains of the Day" (1989), was adapted into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins. His works deal with memory, time and self-delusion.


2016: Bob Dylan

An atypical but world famous laureate: US songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. The Swedish Academy selected him "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."


2015: Svetlana Alexievich

Calling her work "a monument to suffering and courage in our time," the Swedish Academy honored the Belarusian author and investigative journalist in 2015 — making her only the 14th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901. Alexievich is best known for her emotive firsthand accounts of war and suffering, including "War's Unwomanly Face" (1985) and "Voices from Chernobyl" (2005).


2014: Patrick Modiano

The French writer's stories describe a universe of haunted cities, absentee parents, criminality and lost youths. They are all set in Paris with the shadow of the Second World War looming heavily in the background. The Swedish Academy described the novelist, whose work has often focused on the Nazi occupation of France, as "a Marcel Proust of our time."


2013: Alice Munro

Canadian writer Alice Munro is no stranger to accolades, having received the Man Booker International Prize and the Canadian Governor General Literary Award three times over. The Swedish Academy, which awards the annual Nobel Prize in Literature, called her a "master of the contemporary short story."


2012: Mo Yan

Guan Moye, better known under his pen name Mo Yan, was praised by the Swedish Academy as a writer "who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary." The decision was criticized by Chinese dissidents like artist Ai Weiwei, who claimed Yan was too close to the Chinese Communist Party and did not support fellow intellectuals who faced political repression.


2011: Tomas Transtromer

The Academy chose Tomas Gosta Transtromer as the winner in 2011 "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality." In the 1960s, the Swedish poet worked as a psychologist at a center for juvenile offenders. His poetry has been translated into over 60 languages.


2010: Mario Vargas Llosa

The Peruvian novelist received the Nobel Prize "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat." In Latin America, he is famous for uttering the phrase "Mexico is the perfect dictatorship" on TV in 1990 and for punching his once-friend and fellow Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in the face in 1976.


2009: Herta Müller

The German-Romanian author was awarded the Nobel Prize as a writer "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed." She is noted for her work criticizing the repressive communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, which she experienced herself. Müller writes in German and moved to West Berlin in 1987.


2008: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio

The Swedish Academy called J.M.G. Le Clezio an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization." Le Clezio was born in Nice, France, in 1940 to a French mother and a Mauritian father. He holds dual citizenship and calls Mauritius his "little fatherland."


2007: Doris Lessing

British author Doris May Lessing has written novels, plays and short stories, to name just a few of her mediums. The 93-year-old received the Nobel Prize for being a writer "who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny." She campaigned against nuclear weapons and the Apartheid regime in South Africa.


2006: Orhan Pamuk

Ferit Orhan Pamuk, "who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures," was the first Turkish author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. With more than 11 million books sold, he is Turkey's bestselling writer. Pamuk was born in Istanbul and currently teaches at Columbia University in New York City.


2005: Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter, "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms," was awarded the Nobel Prize three years before his death from liver cancer. He died on Christmas Eve in 2008. The British playwright directed and acted in many radio and film productions of his own work. In total, he received more than 50 awards.


2004: Elfriede Jelinek

The Nobel Prize was awarded to Elfriede Jelinek "for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels" and for her plays that reveal society's clichés. A central theme in Jelinek's work is female sexuality. Her novel "The Piano Teacher" was the basis for the 2001 movie of the same name featuring Isabelle Huppert in the lead role.


2003: John Maxwell Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee, "who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider," was also awarded the Booker Prize twice before obtaining the Nobel Prize. The Cape Town-born author became an Australian citizen in 2006. One of his best-known novels, "Disgrace" (1999), is set in post-apartheid South Africa.


2002: Imre Kertesz

The Jewish Hungarian Auschwitz survivor became Nobel laureate "for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history." Kertesz, who died in March 2016, described the atrocities of concentration camps in his books. He worked over 13 years on his semi-autobiographical novel "Fatelessness," which was first published in 1975.


2001: Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul received the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his strong storytelling and "for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories." Born in Trinidad and Tobago, the British writer has often explored the freedom of the individual in a declining society in his novels.


2000: Gao Xingjian

The first Nobel Prize laureate of the new millennium was a Chinese author, playwright and painter based in Paris since 1987. Gao Xingjian was selected for his "oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama."

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. 

Read more: Unearthing the mysteries of the 'battle that created Germany'

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.

Read more: Nobel Literature Prize awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro

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.

Buchcover The Buried Giant

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.

Read more: 'Holocaust commemoration part of Germany's national memory': Merkel

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.

Deutschland Kazuo Ishiguro beim Internationalen Literaturfestival in Berlin

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.

Read more: Israeli writer Amos Oz honored for 'freedom of thought'

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.