“Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”
Recently, I attended an Author talk given by David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro at the Southbank Center. I’ll admit that I had no idea who Ishiguro was. I was only there for Mitchell, who I adore as the author who opened my mind in my late teens. While I was there I got him to sign my battered old copies of ‘Number 9 Dream’, and ‘Cloud Atlas’ (AAAAH! :D).
They gave an informal talk, sitting side by side, playing clips from movies and talking about ghosts. Both are modern fiction writers who incorporate fantastical elements into their writing, yet both are wildly different in personality and approach to writing.
David Mitchell was the less charismatic of the two. He spent his childhood mostly without friends, heavily influenced by pop culture. As a general writing methodology, he comes up with a situation and characters, then writes his plot as he goes along, allowing the story to play out naturally until it reaches a conclusion.
Kazuo Ishiguro on the other hand was the more confident of the pair. Well spoken and deliberate, he came across as the wise scholar to Mitchell’s fevered genius. Born in Japan, though with no hint of an accent, Ishiguro spent his childhood re-enacting Samurai movies with his friends. When he writes, he visualises an emotion, message or end point, and imagines the feeling he wants to leave his reader with. Then, methodically, he works in reverse to build his plot and characters up to this point.
Intrigued, I wanted to compare how these contrasting personalities would translate into each man’s writing. And so, I picked up Ishiguro’s latest, The Buried Giant.
Set in a magical Medieval England where trolls, dragons and other supernatural beasts still roam the land, Britons and Saxons share the country in uneasy peace. Though King Arthur may be long in his grave, his legacy still lies heavy upon the land. Our protagonists are Beatrice and Axl, an elderly couple who gradually become aware that a strange curse of forgetfulness lies upon the land. Upon realising that they have forgotten even the face of their own son, the two embark upon a journey to find his village.
At it’s face, The Buried Giant is a touching and personal tale that asks what it means to have abiding love. When two people have are together for a very long time, they build a lasting relationship on a foundation of shared experience. Once you remove this memory, what’s left?
“I'm wondering if without our memories, there's nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”
The story of Axl and Beatrice is a personal one, but this narrative lies encompassed within a greater circle, one that raises discussion on collective social memory and cultural identity. What does it take to end a war when it asks that people must become neighbours with the ones who slaughtered their family? How can conditions for lasting peace ever arise after the bitterness of ongoing conflict? This idea is ever relevant in our world, resonating with the hatred we see bred through war that lasts for generations, such as with the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
“When it was too late for rescue, it was still early enough for revenge.”
Despite the setting, The Buried Giant is not a fantasy book, nor is it historical one. In many ways it’s a metaphorical setting crafted by Ishiguro to serve as a vessel to carry his message of memory, love and war. I thought it was succinct and cleverly written. Ishiguro wrote exactly as he said he would. The book finished on a note that drove home the themes running throughout the book in a meaningful way. It was not a cinematic exploration of myth and history, but rather a moving and thoughtful exploration of human psychology told through an abstract environment.