Kazuo Ishiguro was never supposed to grow up in England. When his family moved to the small town of Guildford in the south of England in 1960, when Ishiguro was five, they planned to stay a year, maybe two, and then return to Nagasaki with friends and family. It would be 29 years before Ishiguro set foot in Japan again.
It is perhaps because of this perpetual uncertainty, this readiness to leave one world for another, that Ishiguro has felt the tug-of-war between cultures even more strongly than other immigrant children. “All the way through my childhood, I couldn’t forget Japan, because I had to prepare myself for returning to it,” he told an interviewer in 1989. “So I grew up with a very strong image in my head of this other country, a very important other country to which I had a strong emotional tie.… And I think when I reached the age of perhaps 23 or 24 I realized that this Japan, which was very precious to me, actually existed only in my own imagination.”
Ishiguro has made this ability to shift between worlds a defining hallmark of his work. Four of his six previous novels are set in either Japan or England, and even those that are not—The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans—have recognizably English protagonists. Underlying Ishiguro’s interest in the character of these two island nations is an interest in the construction of national character. He sets his fiction in the critical moments when national identities forever change. His 1986 novel, An Artist of the Floating World, takes place in postwar Japan and follows an aging artist haunted by his contributions to far-right militarism—the moment when Japan cut its ties with a fantasy of imperialistic glory to embrace American-inspired capitalism. Similarly, in Remains of the Day, the protagonist, who defines himself entirely by his service to his master, is haunted by his employer’s apologist stance toward the evils of the Third Reich.
He also deals with some of the most enduring national stereotypes of the two countries: the woodcut artist (from Artist), the butler (from Remains of the Day), the Sherlockian detective (from When We Were Orphans). These characters are never clichés, however; they are interrogations of the very texture and fiber of what it means to be English or Japanese, characters whose traumatic memories of national crisis weave together the personal and the political, the individual and the collective. As Ishiguro himself told The Paris Review, “You do have to choose a setting with great care, because with a setting come all kinds of emotional and historical reverberations.”
In his first novel in ten years, Ishiguro again explores the the fractured, contested nature of memory and national identity—particularly, the way collective memory can shape a society’s perception of itself. But the way that a single person remembers and forgets is not the same as the way a nation does, and what one wants to remember can also be what the other needs to forget. This is the conflict that lies at the heart of The Buried Giant.
From its first line, the novel posits an alternate history of England, a foundational myth lost to time. Ishiguro never explicitly tells us what period we are in, and the resulting vagueness shrouds the story in myth. This England consists of “miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland.” The roads left by the Romans are broken or overgrown, ogres roam the marshes and rivers, and a fearsome dragon looms large over the land.
In this bleak landscape, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set out one morning on a journey to find their son, who they believe lives in a nearby village. But these loving parents can’t seem to remember anything about their son—or much else for that matter. “After a while Axl could no longer remember how talk of this journey had started, or what it had ever meant to them.” Axl and Beatrice come to blame this amnesia on “the mist,” a layer of fog that lies over the desolate land. As in any fantasy journey, from Le Morte d’Arthur to The Hobbit, Beatrice and Axl are soon swept away in a grand quest: They must help slay a dragon and thereby lift this mist of forgetfulness.
Along the way to the dragon, Beatrice and Axl learn of a mysterious island, a lonely paradise where the inhabitants “walk among its greenery and trees in solitude, never seeing another soul.… [F]or each traveller, it’s as though he’s the island’s only resident.” Occasionally, however, “a man and woman, after a lifetime shared, and with a bond of love unusually strong, may travel to the island with no need to roam apart.” The strength of the couple’s bond (and thus their worthiness) is judged by boatmen who question the supplicants about their shared memories. In this afterlife, Charon is paid not in coins, but in memories. It eventually becomes clear that what is best for Beatrice and Axl might not be what is best for England, and the elderly couple must come to terms with their individual responsibility in the face of bleak and destructive consequences.
In this way, The Buried Giant actually feels very modern—despite all its talk of ogres, warriors, and dragons. It reprises the same themes Ishiguro has dealt with his entire career: deeply flawed people grappling with dueling impulses and loyalties—to their ideals, identities, and nations. Ishiguro has simply wound back the clock to a time so distant and mythical that he can explore it without as much political baggage. He called it “the Star Wars strategy”: “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. Another option was the Star Wars strategy: ‘in a galaxy far, far away.’”
Strangely—because such themes usually remain lucid but unarticulated in Ishiguro’s work—he has his narrator address the idea of national identity and nation-building explicitly: “I have no wish to give the impression that this was all there was to the Britain of those days,” he writes early in the book, “that at a time when magnificent civilizations flourished elsewhere, we were here not much beyond the Iron Age.… I am sorry to paint such a picture of our country at that time, but there you are.” This amounts to a preemptive apology from narrator to reader for a potential insult to national pride. Britain was not yet the magnificent empire of endless sun or the nation of shopkeepers that we have come to know. Instead, it was backwards and barbaric, and Britons should reconcile their self-image accordingly.
These questions of identity and conflict lie at the heart of The Buried Giant, and they are gripping, tangled, and well worth the attention of so talented a novelist. But for long stretches of the novel, those questions go missing. The Buried Giant reads in part like a fantasy adventure story in the tradition of JRR Tolkien and T.H. White, but it never gets comfortable with the conventions of that genre. The loud, brassy tropes of adventure and fantasy are in some ways antithetical to Ishiguro’s oblique sensibility. His novels are all mysteries, driven forward by suspense and the search for answers, as memories unravel to reveal the truth.
Ishiguro’s métier is the buried anguish of a tragedy so horrific and huge that his characters are helpless in its wake. The butler in The Remains of the Day is so stifled he becomes an observer of his own life; the clone-children raised for their organs in Never Let Me Go never even consider that they have a way out; the eponymous artist in An Artist of the Floating World wrestles with the twisted, bloody ends his life’s work was put to. The Buried Giant packs the same emotional punch, but its muted tone dilutes—and is diluted by—the demands of the fantasy genre. The pathos is lost in the hullaballoo; the action is dulled by the reticence. By attempting to do too much, Ishiguro often achieves little.
One of Ishiguro’s great accomplishments has been his ability to reinvent his style with every novel. The characters in each work have distinct voices whose inflections and tones shape our understanding of them. Stevens, the butler in Remains, is so stuffy he could be one of the upholstered chairs he so lovingly dusts. Kathy H., the narrator of Never Let Me Go, speaks with a studied calm, simultaneously projecting the naiveté of youth and the weariness of age. In The Buried Giant, Ishiguro again gives his characters a specific manner of speech, but rather than adding to our understanding, the faux-archaic language grows tedious. The language doesn’t evoke any particular period; it exists simply to sound antiquated. Axl and Beatrice refer to each other as “princess” and “husband,” much of the dialogue contains “sir” or “maiden,” and the syntax feels slightly out of sync with the modern.
All this isn’t to say that The Buried Giant isn’t an enjoyable novel. The writing is at times lush and thrilling, rolling the gothic, fantastical, political, and philosophical into one. In its best moments, the fantasy elements blend with the exploration of memory, identity, and power to significant effect. The Buried Giant may feel very different from Ishiguro’s previous works, but the concerns that lie at its heart have preoccupied him his entire career. It’s just that the scope this time is larger, the stakes higher. For the young Japanese boy transplanted to England, it’s no longer a single Englishman that’s of interest, but all of England.