(Photo: Mariusz Kubik)
When thinking about this post, it was very tempting to begin by conflating Kazuo Ishiguro’s Japanese heritage with the themes that commonly occur in his writing. After all, it seems intuitive that someone born in Nagasaki would make it their duty to write about the experiences and consequences of war. However, Ishiguro himself has said the following in conversation:
“People are not two-thirds one thing and the remainder something else. Temperament, personality, or outlook don’t divide quite like that. The bits don’t separate clearly. You end up a funny homogeneous mixture. This is something that will become more common in the latter part of the century—people with mixed cultural backgrounds, and mixed racial backgrounds. That’s the way the world is going.”
– Kazuo Ishiguro
So while I’m sure his Japanese heritage is certainly responsible for some of the content of his work, I have to agree with Ishiguro that I cannot isolate and compartmentalise parts of his identity to explain or understand his writing. Perhaps the way forward is to stop trying to do this, given that toxic nationalistic ideals seem to be all too common in the world today.
Regardless, Kazuo Ishiguro does explore war. Interestingly, this takes the form of the causes and the after-effects of war – he focuses remarkably little on the war itself. His intimate narrators follow flawed characters shaped by life during crisis and war, and somehow they inspire sympathy while remaining impartial. It’s haunting to feel the emotions that characters feel when they realise the part they’ve played in a violent conflict. There are rarely moments when violence seems completely justified, but I suspect that individuals fall on a political and ideological spectrum when encountering these events. Ishiguro forces us to evaluate and question our position on this spectrum.
In The Buried Giant, the setting of a post-Arthurian Britain finds the characters in between wars. An uneasy and dishonest peace has settled between the Britons and the Saxons. A curious mist has descended on the land, shrouding memories of times before the peace. A Saxon warrior named Wistan takes it upon himself to remove the mist, restoring memory to Britain, and threatening the fragile peace.
“There are Britons who tempt our respect, even our love, I know this only too well. But there are now greater things press on us than what each may feel for another. It was Britons under Arthur slaughtered our kind. 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 til the flame takes hold again.”
– Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant
While I do not think that this view reflects Ishiguro’s own beliefs about war and peace, I think that passages like this raise poignant questions that deserve our attention. What is the cost of peace? Is peace valuable when it’s based on a lie? Should we value human life more than integrity? I can’t say that I have the answer to any of these questions, and I doubt anybody does.
Kazuo Ishiguro is so important because he tells us stories that provide the quiet rage needed to ask these questions in an open and honest way.