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Book Reviews

Kazuo Ishiguro and His ‘Discomforting World’

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By IANS Updated: May 28, 2023 10:55 pm

Vikas Datta

In one way, this author exemplifies how literary ability can transcend national or linguistic landscapes, and in the other, provides another example of the pervasive power of English, following the footsteps of other exophonic writers in the language like Joseph Conrad, Karen Blixen aka Isak Dinesen, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others.

But unlike them, Japanese-born British writer Kazuo Ishiguro went on to become a Nobel Literature laureate (2017). There are others who won the Nobel for writing in English despite it not being their mother tongue – Rabindranath Tagore and Wole Soyinka being most prominent – but the British Empire had ensured that they were willy-nilly exposed to it.

Ishiguro’s case is different as most of his evocative works deal with situations and settings from far beyond his new – as well as old – homelands and times.

Memory – and its failings, deception (usually of self), and a sense of duty (as understood) are the main motifs of Ishiguro’s small corpus – spanning reminiscences of the high life in the turbulent 1930s through the eyes of an English country house butler in ‘The Remains of the Day’ (1989), the question of personal guilt a painter-turned-propagandist confronts in post-war Japan in ‘Artist of the Floating World’ (1986), a “personal” detective story set in colonial-era and communist-era Shanghai in ‘When We Were Orphans’ (2000), and other works set in Europe, Arthurian Britain or in a dystopian future.

“More fundamentally, I’m interested in memory because it’s a filter through which we see our lives, and because it’s foggy and obscure, the opportunities for self-deception are there. In the end, as a writer, I’m more interested in what people tell themselves happened rather than what actually happened,” Ishiguro had said in a 2000 interview.

This may explain why the narration in all but one of his seven books is in first person, and the earlier works usually deal with the past of the protagonists.

Multiple layers – including some discomforting ones that are subsequently revealed as the story advances, and the lack of definitive endings, as protagonists gradually exhibit their failings but without acknowledging that they’re even aware of them, and thus, end up resigned to fully comprehend or change their lot in life – are some other features of his work.

It is possibly this sentiment of a gradual alienation that the Swedish Academy cited as it lauded Ishiguro for having “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world” in his “novels of great emotional force.”

However, some readers, though impressed, are overwhelmed. According to an ex-colleague, his works were a “mindf**k”, while author Kiran Manral said that what marks him out is the focus on “the individual placed at the centre around which the universe and its chaos unfolds.”

Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Ishiguro grew up in the UK where his family moved in 1959 when his father, a physical oceanographer, was invited for a project. While the family planned a return to Japan almost every or the next year, that never happened and they stayed on – in fact, he only went back to Japan in 1988.

Ishiguro’s first work, ‘A Pale View of the Hills’ (1982), came out a year before he became a British citizen.

The first of his two books with Japanese themes, it deals with a transplanted Japanese woman discussing the suicide of her eldest daughter with her younger child in England where she is living.

“Artist…”, his second book, is set in an unnamed town in post-World War II Japan where the narrator is forced to come to terms with his part in the war as he gets blamed by the new generation for acquiescing in a jingoistic but ultimately ruinous nationalistic policy.

Ishiguro did state that the Japanese settings of his first two novels were imaginary, based on his mental idea of the land of his birth.

The Booker-winning ‘Remains…’, about the dignified butler pondering over his past and wondering about his future after a life completely devoted to the service of another person, remains Ishiguro’s best known – perhaps after its 1993 film adaptation.

It is a tour de force, as it perfectly evokes the most essential element of interbellum England – the country house of the landed gentry and its staff. While in some respects, it verges on Wodehousian: “What do you think dignity’s all about?” The directness of the inquiry did, I admit, take me rather by surprise. ‘It’s rather a hard thing to explain in a few words, sir,’ I said. ‘But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public,” there is a rather sombre reflection on life, duty, and relationships.

“But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently?” or “What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?” are questions that its protagonist raises, and then goes on to answer.

For the first query, he concludes: “In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognise such moments in retrospect,” and in the second, “Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.”

A personal favourite would be the surreal dreamlike – and much (initially) panned by baffled critics and readers – ‘The Unconsoled’ (1995).

This tells the story of concert pianist Ryder’s visit to an unnamed Central European city for a performance, where he finds himself besieged at all hours of the day and night by people he has no recollection of, accosting him with a raft of appointments and promises he has no memory of or can possibly fulfill in his brief stay.

‘When We Were Orphans’ (2000) was not very well received and even Ishiguro admitted it was not one of his best, followed by the darkly dystopian ‘Never Let Me Go’ (2005) which memorably combines the British boarding school tale tradition with the commoditisation of the human body.

‘The Buried Giant’ (2015) then literally broke new ground in substance and style, as well as its setting – a fantasy, post-Arthurian Britain, and the post-Nobel ‘Klara and the Sun’ (2021) came as a rather bleak look at mortality, science – and its ethics, and the environment in the near future.

What next? Ishiguro may still surprise us.

 (Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

6091
By IANS Updated: May 28, 2023 10:55:43 pm
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