Reminiscence in the Work of Kazuo Ishiguro

Michalina Ratajczak

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (Vintage, 2006).

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989).

Looking back is a notoriously tricky business. It is at the mercy of this business that author Kazuo Ishiguro frequently leaves his readers.

Literature has long mined the theme of memory (and its caprice) as a narrative device, favouring the use of questioning, uncertain protagonists who piece a story together from reminiscence. Ishiguro is no exception, as his works have frequently been studies in the patchwork process of reliving and recreating memory, often involving brooding narrators who are in the process of looking back at their lives for the purpose of personal vindication and expiation. They are searching for the one overarching paradigm that would connect the varied experiences of their lives.

Since Ishiguro himself has stated that he “…tend[s] to write the same book over and over,” we can comfortably take on some broad themes in his work without worrying that we are over-generalizing. If you read, one after the other, some of his most popular works of fiction, these themes do stand out.

Together with the halting process of reconstructing the past, the protagonists of his works also seem, even in the height of their agency, like unwanted children, passively watching from the sidelines as the action is implied elsewhere. The main characters, in their quiet docility, seem to refrain from agency, from rocking the boat and disrupting the more aggressive actions of others. For example, in his critically acclaimed novel The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro writes of a butler who is involved in keeping up the Byzantine façade of the fading, storied customs of a great English manor house, at great pains to never question the morally dubious intentions of his influential employer. In Never Let Me Go, as in The Remains of the Day, the protagonist of the novel lives a fragile existence that depends on the tide of events determined by those in power: she is a child bred especially for organ donation, bred to be obliterated, subsumed into someone else’s body so that person can keep on existing and having agency.

In his most recent novel, The Buried Giant, Ishiguro again explores the theme of memory, this time in the quasi-historical context of ancient Britain. As in The Remains of the Day, the story centers around an elderly man, Axl, who is piecing together stray memories and associations, trying to make sense of the narrative of his life; he and his wife are relegated to the sidelines by the agrarian community they live in, now tucked away from all the action, much like Remains’ butler was in his twilight years. Christopher Hitchens, reviewing Nocturnes, Ishiguro’s work of short stories, also picks up on this theme of latter-day introspection: “For those of us fated to lead smaller and less portentous existences, it is still the gathering shade of evening that very often gives rise to our most intense, and sometimes necessarily our most melancholy, moments of reflection and retrospect.”

Yet unlike his other books, in The Buried Giant there is a physical obstacle that seems to be dissolving memories and actively working against this introspection, a mist that lays across the land of semi-fictitious and historical Britain; Axl takes note of it with disquiet, once as he puzzles about the short memories of fellow villagers regarding a lost child. Time carries memories away much faster than what seems normal.

The tether that promises to prevent someone’s existence or memory from dissipating in The Buried Giant, as in Never Let Me Go, seems to be love—a genuine connection between two people that proves each exists in the face of a mercilessly brief collective and individual memory. This makes sense, since a couple being present to the “other” in each other, striving to shore each other up, can certainly stave off a sense of individual oblivion. Having attested to each other, by their love, that each exists, a couple can then witness this fact to others. In Never Let Me Go, two cloned teenagers are bent on following up on a rumour that the demonstration of a genuine love relationship to certain “higher-ups” can defer their sad ends as organ-fodder. In The Buried Giant, the aging couple Axl and Beatrice cling together as they travel, Britons in a largely Saxon land, on a perilous journey to find their son and eventually kill the dragon Querig whose breath steeps the land in forgetfulness. Axl calls Beatrice his “Princess” and is completely oriented towards her needs; their love is untarnished by memories due to the mist, and thus is as fresh as first love.

And yet, their union mirrors the uneasy alliance between the pagan Saxons and Christian Britons at this time, soon after the fabled reign of King Arthur has ended. One of King Arthur’s now-elderly knights, Sir Gawain, is reduced to recalling massacres perpetrated under the legendary ruler’s command and wondering whether he and his cohort were mere “…slaughterers of babe[s]” (214), not the noble knights of renown. It seems that Querig’s malevolent presence comes with a peacekeeping service: the forgetfulness her breath spreads over the land in the form of the constant mist keeps uneasy unions like Axl and Beatrice’s, and the Saxons’ and Britons’, together.

To stop the cycle of wounding in order to bring about peace, one must find a way to deal with the memory of past hurts. Slaughter has long been the crude and common way to erase a hurtful legacy: “Those small Saxon boys you lament would soon have become warriors burning to avenge their fathers fallen today. The small girls soon bearing more in their wombs, and this circle of slaughter would never be broken. Look how deep runs the lust for vengeance!” (The Buried Giant, 213). But if peace is built on unforgiven violence, it is what one might justifiably call false peace: an uneasy peace that hasn’t grappled and finally come to terms with the fact that past violators may today be present sufferers who in turn require mercy.

The rhetorical device of Querig’s breath imposes another way to stymie the power of hurtful memory: conveniently doing away with it. However, it is ineffective because it doesn’t completely eradicate memories; instead, they keep breaking through by means of triggers that evoke visceral, bodily memory. In this state (as happens in our own lives when we are living out unexamined and unquestioned paradigms) the misattribution of stimuli is given free rein: the smallest thing evokes emotions that are disproportionate or even completely unrelated to the trigger. For example, once, as Axl watches Beatrice walk away, the particular set of her shoulders “hunched against the wind, caused a fragment of recollection to stir on the edges of Axl’s mind. The emotion it provoked, even before he could hold it down, surprised and shocked him, for mingled with the overwhelming desire to go to her now and shelter her, were distinct shadows of anger and bitterness” (The Buried Giant, 270).

Once Querig is slain and the mist lifts, remembered hurts dawn upon the elderly couple. Though it is unclear whether the resurgence of memories finally rends Axl and Beatrice’s relationship apart, or at least saps it of most of its tenderness, they do finally agree to be parted—momentarily, it’s true, but even such a brief separation between them had been unthinkable before the memories resurfaced.

Here lies the complicated blessing and power of interpreting the past in the search for meaning: placed firmly at the helm of our memories, we can order the memories at our behest, in the narrative of our choosing. We are then made the god of our own life, passing judgement, summoning and dismissing evidence at will. Introspection stems the unwelcome creep of present reality and enables us to remain secure in our knowledge that we alone manage the revisions to successive drafts of the past. It is of necessity a lonely process: it must be done without others, who might threaten this process with alternative views. It must be done too without God and the sacraments of His Church, which will inevitably introduce the gentle but persistent press of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. The lifting of the mist allows the feud between the Britons and Saxons to be reignited as the memories of slaughter come flooding back, demanding some sort of response. Edwin’s tender, constant memory of his mother, lost to Briton savagery, is transmuted to a blind desire for revenge.

Does memory, then, doom us to be victims (and in turn, victimizers), always at the mercy of our past hurts? Is erasing our memories, both individual and collective, the only chance for peace?

The other option Ishiguro presents is to carefully curate the contents of our memories, as Stevens does in the final pages of The Remains of the Day as he sits leisurely on a pier while reflecting on his life. He is a melancholy, solitary figure; when I read this book in my early twenties, I made the mistake of also ascribing to him the status of nobility. However, as I reread the book in my early thirties, I realised he was a figure who spent his life deftly avoiding the true motivations underlying his actions, accomplishing complicated mental feats to block the intrusive reality of his and his associate Miss Kenton’s affections for each other, and the fact that he had spent a large part of his life working tirelessly for a Nazi-sympathizing employer. There is a certain death in his peace as he sits on that pier; one can even imagine this elderly butler contentedly swathed in a veil of rationalizations as the pier lights play upon him, a corpse waiting to be finally entombed in his false security. He has successfully evaded the intrusion of reality, of life, and ultimately of God, into his tidy little universe.

In Remains, Stevens is seeking to validate his past actions by viewing them solely through a lens of self-justification, ascribing to them a final, authoritative interpretation that would brook no dissent. This would put a stop to the flow of meaning that might continue to spring from them posthumously. A person’s life does not end, after all, at death, but carries on into eternity. Who are we to be the ultimate judges of our actions? Should we not proclaim like St. Paul does instead in 1 Corinthians, that

It is of no importance to me how you or any other human court may judge me: I will not even be the judge of my own self. It is true that my conscience does not reproach me, but that is not enough to justify me: it is the Lord who is my judge. For that reason, do not judge anything before the due time, until the Lord comes; he will bring to light everything that is hidden in darkness and reveal the designs of all hearts. (1 Cor 4:3‒5)

During a 2008 interview, Ishiguro spoke of “the grammar of dreams,” and how dreams work much in the same way as recollections, that “you manipulate both according to your emotional needs at the time.” We recall, like the butler Stevens in Remains and like the old warrior Sir Gawain in The Buried Giant, that which seems to satisfy our emotional need for a coherent story. Yet the Christian message urges us to wait with this, even when the night of our life draws near—wait a little longer with the autobiography, to avoid the risk of ostensibly telling one story, but actually meaning another.

Though we might rightfully admit, like St. Paul, that “It is true that my conscience does not reproach me” (1 Cor 4:4), it is impossible to finally and fully resolve the sometimes painful riddle of our own lives on our own. Perhaps Ishiguro’s works can show us that it is better to rest from analysis, at the twilight of our lives or even at the conclusion of a puzzling situation, to stave off that emotional satisfaction of connecting the dots, and to instead guard the “mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1) while we wait for the Spirit of Truth to fully illuminate our memories and recollections, those “dim reflections.” 

Michalina Ratajczak holds an MA in Literature from the University of Toronto. She is a writer and proud aunt to four beautiful nieces.