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Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels of remembering

Discussed in this essay:

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf. 336 pages. $26.95.

Why does nobody talk about Kazuo Ishiguro? Never in my life has someone recommended an Ishiguro novel to me, and I am a person to whom people frequently recommend novels. Fashion recycles the past, but literary taste, for the new and the newly reissued, has a brutally short memory: Roberto Bolaño, Robert Walser, Renata Adler, Chris Kraus, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante — the wheels spin on. Still, faddism alone doesn’t explain the silence around Ishiguro. When you tell a fellow admirer that you are a recent convert, as I am, you often get something like a shrug, as if you have just suggested that The Great Gatsby is a ripper of a yarn. Others back away slowly, admitting grudging respect but no enthusiasm. “I think he’s very good, yes, although to be honest there is something snobbish in me that never quite lets myself say he is one of my favorite writers,” a friend wrote to me recently. “What is that? I think it’s something about feeling very clearly manipulated, maybe.”

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Ishiguro is a manipulator, a masterful one. He writes straight-up tearjerkers. Even their titles run the scale of a minor key: A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled, When We Were Orphans, Never Let Me Go, Nocturnes, The Buried Giant. The Saddest Music in the World, a screenplay that Ishiguro wrote in the 1980s, was rewritten by Guy Maddin and George Toles. In his 2003 film, Maddin preserved only two aspects of Ishiguro’s original: the title and the conceit, a contest to determine the world’s saddest music. Yet Ishiguro is also a canny destroyer of the pieties that cling to art. One by one his books dismantle the idea that art consoles, that art contains truths, that art expresses the soul. He insists on the artificiality and createdness of his narratives.

Some find his tone unsettling. The charge is that Ishiguro is an imitator or technician who writes prose that is disturbing or haunting for its very learnedness, its perfect pitch. The critic Louis Menand, who made this claim in 2005, went so far as to say that even Ishiguro’s human characters have a hint of the android about them, that their constant obsession with learning to be human is a reflection of the author’s own “realism from an instruction manual.” Formulated in those terms, the charge becomes inextricable from racial panic: Ishiguro is too foreign, too imitative; he performs with bravura but without heart; he is efficient but cold.

It helps to know that after he read Sherlock Holmes as a child, Ishiguro stopped reading altogether until his early twenties. When he came to the novel, he did so as a student. His approach is intentional: the novel is a second language, as it were. (Music was his first vocation.) Describing his novels as perfect is at once apt and elusive, because his novels are not really about perfection. They are about failure, incompletion, forgetting — not about getting wiser, just about growing old.

There is one way in which Ishiguro is undeniably obsessed with instruction: He has a schoolboy’s anxiety about tests. Early in The Buried Giant, his new novel, Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons who have set out on a journey to visit their son, come across an off-duty boatman and a reproachful old woman who are taking shelter from the rain in a crumbling house. The woman is angry, and has been for some time, ever since the boatman ferried her husband to a mysterious island and left her behind on this shore. It is a fateful meeting. Axl and Beatrice have heard tell of the passage to the island: that it is preceded by an examination, and that if travelers are able to answer the questions to the boatman’s satisfaction, they will be permitted to cross the water together. Then, on the island, they will not be alone. Is the rumor true?

“It is, as you say, my duty to question all who wish to cross to the island,” the boatman replies.

If it’s a couple such as you speak of, who claim their bond is so strong, then I must ask them to put their most cherished memories before me. I’ll ask one, then the other to do this. Each must speak separately. In this way the real nature of their bond is soon revealed.

Cherished memories, though, are not so easy to come by. A mist covering the land has kept Axl and Beatrice — and everyone else in England — from snatching anything but shadows of the past. How will they prove their love to the boatman if they can’t remember it? And worse: How will they stay in love once their memories return?

The Buried Giant is something of a departure for Ishiguro. Those who know him only from The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, his most popular works, and are expecting an England of country houses, boarding schools, and state hospitals, may need some coaxing to get past the first pages. The year is about 450 a.d. One of the characters is a dragon. Axl has the persistent, gently irritating habit of referring to Beatrice as “princess.” And the sentences, rather than spooling plainly in lifelike description, accumulate in lumps, like modeling clay. But the subject — memory and forgetting — is well-worn Ishiguran territory. This is not a criticism. Ishiguro has the earned repetitiousness of all great writers. As Nabokov said, “Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic originality has only its own self to copy.”

Take this matter of tests. In Never Let Me Go, the school administration — let’s just call them critics — collects the best student artwork for special exhibitions. A trio of students, who are genetic clones of people living outside the school, cling to a rumor that if they can convince the authorities that they are in love, they will be granted a deferral of the organ harvest for which they have been raised. The art, they imagine, is supposed to prove their bond: “It would help show you what we were like,” one of them falteringly explains.

Sometimes Ishiguro’s tests are less literal. In When We Were Orphans, a British boy whose parents are kidnapped from the International Settlement in Shanghai grows up to be a famous detective in London. He returns to his childhood city during the 1937 Japanese occupation to rescue them; he is, of course, too late. There’s also The Unconsoled, in which a pianist named Ryder attempts to pull off a concert that will bring his squabbling parents back together. The Unconsoled, by the by, a work of Kafka-lite absurdity whose ending positively sings, radically broke with the realism of Ishiguro’s previous works, and was unjustly trashed on its publication. But what is publication but another kind of test?

Everyone knows what it is like to be stumped in the moment on a test, to not be able to answer the question; and also what it is like to realize the correct answer halfway home from school. Your knowledge was intact but somehow misplaced. When this happens in life — when what one forgets is to love someone, say, as the butler Stevens does in The Remains of the Day — we call it repression. Ishiguro’s tests are heartbreaking because they uncover knowledge that someone has hidden from himself, but also because they are so obviously wishful fantasies. There are no tests of these kinds, not really — no authority on earth who can adjudicate your life, who can tell you whether you loved well or badly, whether you wasted your vocation or your opportunities.

Every Ishiguro narrator asks these questions, or avoids asking them. Did I live the best way I could have, given the circumstances of my life? His novels are usually told as remembrances, by a person of old or middle age who is surveying or solving events gone by; often they conclude with a scene of the narrator looking over a scenic vista, crying or holding back tears. The characters cannot always bear to directly state the disaster that has occurred, and they often go to great lengths to avoid doing so. In The Unconsoled, Ryder admits how much the concert could have meant only after he has missed the performance. In A Pale View of Hills, the narrator can only tell her story refracted through a story about a friend. In The Buried Giant, for the first time in Ishiguro’s work, the point of view rotates, permitting us access to more than one interior life. This has the effect of increasing the suffering on view and also sheltering us from it.

Ishiguro’s first three novels concerned the recognizably plausible daily life of ordinary people, in which human characters are described getting up from tables, answering the phone, or moving from room to room. These early works were tightly controlled. He has said that they were Chekhovian, and that he wanted to learn to be messier, like Dostoevsky. The result was The Unconsoled, which operates by what he has called a “dream logic”: time and space dilate and contract. Elevator rides take as long as necessary for a lengthy dialogue to finish; people do not walk through doors, but they suddenly materialize in rooms and on buses, as if they have been there all along. Since then Ishiguro has returned to verisimilitude, but in genre form: science fiction in Never Let Me Go, detective noir in When We Were Orphans. The Buried Giant is myth, not dream. Its characters move through space in familiar ways. But its time is vague and obscure; its setting is Tolkienesque; its dialogue takes the form of cryptic pronouncements; and its characters are warriors, pixies, and knights.

Until now, even when historical and social forces were powerfully presented in Ishiguro’s work — the rise of British fascism, the bombing of Nagasaki, the opium trade in China, the advent of genetic engineering — the recovery of an individual life story was primary. What mattered was what history meant for the person who survived it. An Artist of the Floating World, for example, tracked the willed amnesia of postwar Japan through the story of an elderly painter named Ono, who had been a pro-imperial state functionary. The Buried Giant, for all its attention to Axl and Beatrice, is at base a story about the founding of England, and the suppression of the knowledge of violence that founding a state might require.

In addition to the unnamed Charon figure and the aforementioned dragon (a she-dragon, actually, named Querig), The Buried Giant counts among its characters a Saxon warrior named Wistan, keen on revenge; a boy named Edwin who has been kidnapped by ogres; disfigured monks who belong to a monastery built on a former fortress; and Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, who ought to have dispensed with the dragon many years ago. The book begins in Axl and Beatrice’s hillside village, a pockmark on otherwise “desolate, uncultivated land” where a “sprawling warren” of shelters are dug into the ground. The pair travels to a Saxon village, where Wistan has just rescued Edwin; Edwin, however, is no longer welcome among his people, thanks to a strange bite he has suffered, and Axl and Beatrice agree to chaperone him, with Wistan, to safety. The time is some twenty or thirty years after the Britons have achieved a costly victory over the Saxon invaders — a victory won through the rape and indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, women, and children. A treaty designed to protect against just these sorts of war crimes did not hold: to some, the failure is a catastrophic shame; to others, acceptable collateral damage. The mist that obscures Axl and Beatrice’s past is also preserving a fragile peace: if no one can remember the crimes, no one can seek vengeance for them.

“It occurred to me that the way an individual remembers and forgets is quite different to the way a society does,” Ishiguro told The Paris Review in 2008.

When is it better to just forget? This comes up over and over again. France after the Second World War is an interesting case. You could argue that De Gaulle was right to say, We need to get the country working again. Let’s not worry too much about who collaborated and who didn’t. Let’s leave all this soul-searching to another time. But some would say that justice was ill served by that, that it leads eventually to bigger problems. It’s what an analyst might say about an individual who’s repressing. If I were to write about France, though, it becomes a book about France. I imagined myself having to face all these experts on Vichy France asking me, So what are you saying about France? What are you accusing us of? And I’d have to say, Actually, it was just supposed to stand for this bigger theme.

There are other histories that one might be tempted to find in The Buried Giant: the Japanese memory of fire-bombing and nuclear radiation; the Chinese memory of Japanese occupation. We don’t even need to go that far back in time. The September 11 attacks, the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, CIA-authorized torture at black sites, the internments at Guantánamo, and the rise of the Islamic State — this cycle of horror is one of endless revenge. One can see why it would be better to just forget, to not know what wrongs were committed, to snuff out their memory. Knowledge fans the flames of bitterness to serve the cause of violence. “It was Britons under Arthur slaughtered our kind,” Wistan tells Edwin, who, like the detective in When We Were Orphans, is searching for his kidnapped mother. Wistan wants to train Edwin for war.

It was Britons took your mother and mine. We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman and child of their blood. So promise me this. Should I fall before I pass to you my skills, promise me you’ll tend well this hatred in your heart. And should it ever flicker or threaten to die, shield it with care till the flame takes hold again.

In Ishiguro’s novels — in all novels, really — nothing is ever truly forgotten, and the return of the repressed is vicious. Beatrice hopes that some form of knowing could be a path to peace. “Remember us,” she begs Edwin, because if he can keep their image in his mind, it will make it harder to hate other Britons. Her belief that knowledge can midwife mercy explains why she is drawn to a particular explanation of the mist — that it is a sign God has forgotten them all. The idea has obvious appeal: if God can forget, then his ability to destroy his creation with floods and fires and trials is far easier to comprehend. But God’s forgetfulness figures in another way in the novel, as forgiveness — a grace that, according to Wistan, licenses cruelty. “What use is a god with boundless mercy, sir?” he asks a monk.

You mock me as a pagan, yet the gods of my ancestors pronounce clearly their ways and punish severely when we break their laws. Your Christian god of mercy gives men license to pursue their greed, their lust for land and blood, knowing a few prayers and a little penance will bring forgiveness and blessing.

It is the false monks who give themselves such license, not God, but no matter — it turns out that a different kind of god is responsible for the mist: the wizard Merlin. As for the boatman who sits in judgment, he does not himself remember or forget. He only asks whether you do.

Remembering is about knowing, but also about belonging — about putting — and keeping — the members, the limbs of the body, together. Novels and myths hold up ideas of what it means to belong — to a nation, to a class, to a family. Class belonging is especially critical to Ishiguro’s vision. Stevens, the butler from The Remains of the Day, is the obvious example, but there is an equally palpable case in Never Let Me Go, in which the difference between clones and humans is less important and less obvious than the difference between clones who went to the exclusive boarding school Hailsham and clones who did not. When the school closes, the image chosen by Kathy, the narrator, for the emotional scattering that ensues is that of a handful of balloons released into the air:

I thought about Hailsham closing, and how it was like someone coming along with a pair of shears and snipping the balloon strings just where they were entwined above the man’s fist. Once that happened, there’d be no real sense in which those balloons belonged with each other anymore.

Belonging, which always involves memory, also entails care. This is particularly relevant to Kathy, who is a “carer” of “donors” — a companion and advocate for clones whose organs have begun to be harvested. Having spent so much of her life as a third wheel or observer, she is good at the job. It also helps that she has the privilege of choosing her patients. “Carers aren’t machines,” she says, a bit defensively. “You try and do your best for every donor, but in the end, it wears you down. You don’t have unlimited patience and energy. So when you get a chance to choose, of course, you choose your own kind. That’s natural.”

Choosing your own kind is what novels do, at least according to the Marxist critic Raymond Williams, who defined the novel as “a knowable community.” His point was that novels make value judgments about who can be known, about who counts as a person. (He pointed to Jane Austen’s works, in which the community is far-ranging in space yet excludes all the laborers in between country houses; those people are not the kind of people that Austen’s people can know.) But what I also understand by this phrase is that the novel, particularly the realist novel, has an interest in making persons known. It relentlessly reveals connections. (This is why strangers in nineteenth-century novels turn out to be cousins.) This interest also has something to do with belonging. Novels make claims not just about who knows whom but about who belongs to whom: who is kin, who is kind.

Williams was talking about realism, but Ishiguro’s investment in the ideas of belonging and care exceeds that form. In the mythic world of The Buried Giant, Wistan cares for Edwin. Axl and Beatrice belong to and care for each other. And Sir Gawain belongs to the dragon. In one of two internal monologues, Gawain recalls the day he went out with four other knights to meet Querig for the first time. It was the height of the war. After leaving the dragon’s lair Gawain helped a young Briton girl take revenge on a Saxon lord who had raped and killed her mother and sisters. They meet on the field of battle.

His knees were thick with the gore he waded through, but I saw this was no warrior, and I brought him down till he lay breathing on the earth, his legs no more use to him, staring his hatred up at the sky. So she came then and stood above him, the shield tossed aside, and the look in her eyes chilled my blood over all else to be seen across that ghastly field. Then she brought the hoe down not with a swing, but a small prod, then another, the way she is searching for potatoes in the soil, until I am made to cry, “Finish it maiden, or I’ll do it myself!” to which she says, “Leave me now, sir. I thank you for your service, but now it’s done.”

The girl, in other words, has no need of Gawain now; he does not belong there.

What is it about Gawain that makes him so prone to incompletion? In Ishiguro’s novel, the ladies’ man of Arthurian legend is mocked by a trio of crones for not having finished off Querig. The Gawain of legend also left his tasks curiously undone, as when he struck the neck of the Green Knight, who picked up his severed head and issued another challenge:

The head, within his hand he held it up a space,

Toward the royal dais, forsooth, he turned the face,

The eyelids straight were raised, and looked with glance so clear,

Aloud it spake, the mouth, e’en as ye now may hear.

There is no headless Green Knight in The Buried Giant, but there are two decapitations of animals. The first occurs in a tunnel — a mausoleum, really — underneath the monastery where Axl, Beatrice, Wistan, and Edwin shelter until a sudden incursion of Briton troops drives them away. Wistan remains behind to battle, and Sir Gawain unexpectedly appears to offer aid. To exit the tunnel they must get around a creature that is neither entirely a dragon nor entirely a dog. Gawain swings his sword and the beast runs off, leaving its head behind.

Indeed it was hard to believe the severed head was not a living thing. It lay on its side, the one visible eye gleaming like a sea creature. The jaws moved rhythmically with a strange energy, so that the tongue, flopping amidst the teeth, appeared to stir with life.

The Green Knight, at least, had the courtesy to take his head with him on his way out the door.

Some tasks must be left half-done. But the final slaying of Querig culminates with the dragon’s head swimming on a tide of its own blood. Ishiguro rarely makes it easy to get a clean cut. Early in the story, when Wistan returns to the Saxon village with Edwin, he holds up part of the body of a monster. “Axl saw that what he had taken for strands of hair were entrails dangling out of the cut by which the segment had been separated from the body.” Compare this, from When We Were Orphans: “One of his legs had been blown off at the hip, from where surprisingly long entrails, like the decorative tails of a kite, had unfurled over the matting.” If remembering is about putting the parts of the body together, here it looks more like dismembering; one part is always left behind.

No one could read The Buried Giant and think that Ishiguro likes the amnesiac mist, that he thinks forgetting is good. At the same time, Ishiguro’s melancholics usually find that their memories do no good in the end. How can we square this dedication to remembering with the futility of memory?

“What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?” Stevens thinks at the end of The Remains of the Day, as he looks over the water, waiting for the pier lights to turn on.

What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.

This is an echo of a conclusion told to Ono in An Artist of the Floating World. “There’s no need to blame ourselves unduly,” an old compatriot tells him.

We at least acted on what we believed and did our utmost. It’s just that in the end we turned out to be ordinary men. Ordinary men with no special gifts of insight. It was simply our misfortune to have been ordinary men during such times.

It is possible to read Ishiguro as damning his characters with disapproving authorial silence. His remarkable power as a writer of thinking minds lies in the subtle ways he shows the flaws and failings of his characters while allowing them to speak for themselves: the reader ultimately knows them better than they know themselves. This is not to say that his characters are not in some way aware of their capacities for self-deception; they know what they don’t know, what they avoid or refuse to admit. Axl also tries to evade the knowledge that is coming for him. “I don’t care for any of these memories,” he says, after Gawain reminds him of his own part in the war. They are memories of failure, of promises broken at a terrible cost of life. The mist gives him what he wants: an excuse to turn away. Another word for this is resistance.

Still, one wonders. Maybe Axl knows something that we don’t know. Maybe — like Ono and Stevens and Ryder and all of Ishiguro’s broken storytellers — he knows that the past is not the kind of thing it is easy to learn from. All of us, butlers and orphans and clones and readers alike, can learn only after the time for action has passed, when it is too late. Axl’s conclusion in The Buried Giant — that “black shadows make part of [the] whole” of his and Beatrice’s imperfect love — is useless. The final test can never be passed. There is nothing to fear from judgment, because the sentence is always the same — death, separation — and justice is hardly at issue. The boatman never takes more than one passenger at a time. This does not mean that one should forget: on the contrary, it is imperative to remember. But it is a gloomy and resigned imperative, one that makes no difference.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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