22 March 2015

Call Me Ish: A Tale of Kazuo Ishiguro and His New Book

I read Kazuo Ishiguro's most recent novel, The Buried Giant, a few months ago. I'm not a completist when it comes to Ishiguro, but I know enough to admire him greatly for being a different writer out of the gate, every time. I read When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go, and I've seen the film adaptation of The Remains of the Day, three radically different kinds of works. Thus, I was pretty excited to read his new book to see what he would do next.

The Buried Giant has a very different narrative style, which is fitting, considering that he's tackling the interrelated philosophies of memory and forgiveness, but placing them in an early medieval context.  His is a world peopled with Angles and Saxons and Britons (oh, my!), one generation after the death of King Arthur. With the exception of very few individuals who seem immune to it, there's a fog over the land that obscures memory.  When we meet Axl and Beatrice, our two older adventurers in this book, they have been struggling to remember their son. They have the feeling that something went terribly wrong, some time ago, without quite remembering what led to their estrangement, and they would like to travel to his village to see him one last time before they die.

On their journey, they encounter some amazing and mysterious and creepy things, including a village that is harboring more than one dark secret, a soldier-warrior on a quest, and the last of King Arthur's Knights of the Roundtable, who, doddering though he may be, is in dogged pursuit of the last task that his liege had set for him many decades ago.

There were many points during the reading where I was strongly reminded of both Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings (with hints of humor that occasionally pointed to Monty Python), but that quite possibly points at my own deficiencies as a reader, as much as anything. I read medieval literature in grad school, but I'm not  particularly well versed in contemporary fiction where dragons and quests cohabitate with knights and monsters, so there may be more appropriate comps out there.

More than anything else, though, this novel is working on many levels, both literal and allegorical.  I enjoyed Ishiguro's book, but I'm not sure that I understood it, precisely.  I tend to be a bit too literal a reader to grasp nuance on the fable level, and as I turned the last page, I wasn't quite sure what I had read.  But these months later, there are still images and passages and ideas in this book that haunt me. I feel that Ishiguro is a giant among his peers, and I'd vote for him as Most Likely To Be Read In 100 Years.
Here is what 300+ copies of the same book looks like
Which is why it was such a great pleasure to spend some time in his company this past weekend. My co-worker, Nancy, and I drove to Boston with a carload of more than 300 copies of The Buried Giant to get signed for our store's First Editions Club.  Mr Ishiguro was there with his wife, Lorna, and they were both so lovely.  Almost in one voice, as Nancy and I introduced ourselves, they exclaimed, "Call me [him] Ish." Biting back an urge to add "-mael, " I did as they requested.

Some readers like to be on a first name basis with writers.  Not me.  I think I prefer to be on a monosyllabic basis.

Here's Nancy passing books to Ish
Anyway, we spent our time passing books to Ish to sign, and packing them back up in their boxes, all the while chatting about his tour, the rise of the importance of social media, "power readers" vs casual readers, the Oscars, and whatever other tidbits of conversation came up. They were so gracious and charming that I was sad when Ish signed the last book so soon.

Here are a few photos of the signing and of the book itself, which vies for most beautiful trade book produced this season (Aquarium by David Vann, published by Grove Atlantic, is the other).

Nancy, Ish, and me
L-R: Me, Ish, Lynne (their media escort) and Lorna
The beautiful map endpapers are very Tolkienesque
Only the first printings have all of the edges black.
Beautiful 1/4 binding with marbled paper overlay

NB: This book was published by Knopf in the US a few weeks ago, and I read an advance reading copy that was provided upon my request by my wonderful sales rep.


  1. "I enjoyed Ishiguro's book, but I'm not sure that I understood it, precisely."

    I just read An Artist of the Floating World, and this is exactly how I felt about it. It was lovely and the tone was perfect, but I feel like I missed out on something big in my reading. I think he was trying to say something and I wasn't hearing it, which may be due to cultural differences (I am leagues away from a Japanese painter with dubious politics post WWII whose narration smacks of megalomania). I absolutely loved Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, which seemed, incidentally, more accessible to me than Artist of the Floating World. I don't even know fully what my point is here except that I'm excited about this book and a little intimidated and I need to be better at giving literary fiction a close reading.

    1. I haven't read that one, but I suspect that I would have similar feelings if I had.

  2. Doesn't really sound like my type of book but it does look very attractive!

    1. Yes, it really has some of the nicest production values of any trade book published recently!

  3. Well done not only meeting the guy, but moving even beyond a first name basis with him. I think I may need to read this one.

  4. "Call me Ish". Well how cool and laid back is he! I really liked Never Let Me Go, but I haven't read anything else. Not sure this would be one for me (I'm a bit literal too), but I'll try one of his others.

  5. This is already on my TBR, I'm just waiting for my turn at the library! I like the black gilding. It has been a deciding factor in my purchasing of books in the past.

  6. Faith, hope, and love -
    the greatest of these is love.
    Jump into faith.
    God bless you.

  7. Ishiguro never fails to bring me to my knees with his stories. I've waded through a couple thinking "I'm so confused, why continue?" Then I get to the end and am totally blown away. He's NOT an easy read but so worth it. This is my second favorite after "Never Let Me Go".


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