On the Side of Pixies and Ogres

Why Kazuo Ishiguro Turned to Fantasy

By Steve Paulson

 

A new book by British writer Kazuo Ishiguro is a major literary event. So fans salivated when news surfaced about his first new novel in ten years. But when word got out that “The Buried Giant” is set in a mythic past with ogres and pixies - not to mention a she-dragon - the literati scratched their heads. This is not what an Ishiguro novel is supposed to look like, especially when you think about previous novels like "The Remains of the Day" and "Never Let Me Go" - modern classics later turned into big budget movies. But Ishiguro had his reasons for turning to fantasy. He needed his ogres and pixies to tell a serious story about memory and violence - and why we choose to remember or forget.

This world you’ve created mixes myth with history. Why did you choose this setting for your story?

It’s set after the Romans left Britain, around 410 AD, but before the Anglo-Saxons settled the country. They haven’t conquered it yet. No one knows what happened during this blank period of history, but one theory is that there was a wipe-out of the indigenous people - what we’d call an ethnic cleansing. What I needed for my setting was a place where ethnic tribes had co-existed for generations in peace - an uneasy peace, imposed by force - and then suddenly something erupts and one side wipes out the other. The crucial thing for me is that some piece of societal memory had been reawakened to mobilize the hatred and violence.

On the surface, this is an ancient, semi-mythological setting. But what triggered it for me were a number of things that happened in the 90s. On our doorstep, Yugoslavia disintegrated. It was amazing to see concentration camps and a massacre, like the one at Sreberniza. People who’d used each other as babysitters, and then one group suddenly “remembers” reasons to hate the other group. In Bosnia, powerful people deliberately reawakened memories from the Second World War.

So a country doesn’t necessarily want to remember all the injustices and atrocities. You have to acknowledge the truth of what happened, but maybe you also have to gloss over some of those awful things that happened.

Exactly. That’s what my book is about. There are often moments in a community’s life when it’s better to forget - to avoid just falling apart and cycles of violence, as we had in Northern Ireland, where people kept alive memories from centuries back to fuel the hatred. And there’s an analogy in relationships. In a long marriage, you have exactly the same questions. There are inevitably dark passages, and sometimes, you have to just move on. This is the question that the old couple in my novel face. Would our love survive those buried memories coming alive? But if we don’t look at those buried things, is our love phony? Is it really a true love if it’s based on forgetting?

You have ogres and a dragon in this story. And one of your characters is Sir Gawain from King Arthur’s Roundtable. Is this a fantasy novel?

You could call it that, I suppose. I’m never that concerned what official label you put on things. But if you’re saying Beowulf and The Odyssey are fantasies, then this is definitely a fantasy.

Ursula LeGuin - the famous fantasy writer - blogged after she first heard you talk about the book. She thought you didn’t want to be labeled a fantasy writer, which she said was “insulting” and “a thoughtless prejudice.” But I think she backtracked after she made those comments.

Yeah, I don’t want to re-start the thing with Ursula LeGuin, whom I respect a lot. She was gracious enough, without any prompting from me, to withdraw her personal accusation against me. But her larger point is that there’s been a snobbery from the mainstream literary community toward the fantasy genre. And I’m experiencing that for the first time. I’ve heard people say, I love The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, but I hear your new book has ogres and pixies and I’m not sure I want to read that. This slightly shocked me. Because I needed my ogres and pixies for very strong artistic reasons.

Why did you need these elements of fantasy and myth to make this novel work? Why couldn’t you deal with mass killings and group hatred in a more realistic fashion?

My story required a nation that was suffering from a strange amnesia. And what appealed to me was to have an old-fashioned fantasy reason: there was a mist that had come over the land and people were losing their memories. I take anything available to make my story work. But if lines are being drawn about whether pixies and ogres are good for literature, then I’m on the side of the pixies and ogres.

But you could’ve dealt with these issues of cultural amnesia in a more modern setting.

I was tempted to. In fact, I’m fascinated by things like France after the Second World War and what the French do or don’t do with the memory of the Occupation. A lot of Jews were sent to the gas chambers by the French themselves, but after the war, they convinced themselves they were all brave Resistance fighters.

So why didn’t I choose a modern setting to write this book? Had I written about Bosnia or race in the United States, the book would have locked itself into one time and setting. I’m not a journalist. As a novelist, I feel my job is to take a step back and tell stories about the universal patterns that recur over and over. Isn’t this an eternal and universal thing about the human condition? We struggle with these questions about how much we want to remember, how much we want to forget. It’s a huge question because it’s often the difference between survival and destruction. And as a novelist, I’m concerned about the feelings and the human side of that experience.

Kazuo Ishiguro on 'The Buried Giant'

Kazuo Ishiguro discusses his latest novel, "The Buried Giant." Set in a mythic past with ogres and pixies, it's a dramatic shift from his previous work.

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