The Novelist as Shape-Shifter
British author Kazuo Ishiguro is a talented, versatile writer with a powerful ability to get the reader to empathize with his characters, even when his characters are completely flawed. He uses a subtle, understated writing style to chronicle powerful emotions and terrifying situations. He has often used history, particularly pre- and post-war history, to test his characters and show their flaws.
He’s also a writer who loves to try out different forms; while several of his novels have been set in various eras in England and Japan, he has also worked in the science fiction form and now, of course with The Buried Giant, in fantasy.
Ishiguro was born in Japan, but moved to England when he was five years old. Though Japan is the setting for his first two novels, he didn’t return to Japan until 30 years after his departure. He’s said that his parents took pains to raise him with the values of their home country, and as a child he built up an idea of an imaginary Japan that eventually moved into his fiction. Not surprisingly, several of his books have characters with feet in two different worlds.
His first book, 1982’s A Pale View of the Hills, was about a Japanese woman who has moved to England but still suffers the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki. His second novel, 1986’s An Artist of the Floating World, was also set in post-World War II Japan and concerns an artist looking back on his life. In this case the worlds are the present and the past – the artist supports the right wing in the run-up to World War II and even becomes a police informer. After the war he is discredited, and the reader hears his attempts to reconcile/justify his past.
Ishiguro used an unreliable narrator in this Artist – his next and most famous book showed that he was a master of that technique. His 1989 novel The Remains of the Day won Ishiguro the Booker Prize. It’s a completely mesmerizing and heartbreaking story about Stevens, an English butler who doesn’t just lose his way of life; he loses the one chance he had for authentic love. Ishiguro created an unforgettable character in Stevens, one readers come to love, even as they realize how terribly flawed he is – self-deception, abandoned ideals, undeclared love, misplaced loyalty are just some of the traits that paralyze Stevens as the world changes around him. That is the very definition of great fiction; that it creates such empathy in the reader that they can learn to identify with someone who is making very bad choices.
It’s told from Stevens’ point of view. He is looking back on his life and career, in the wake of the sale of the manor house he has been serving in to an American businessman. The businessman recommends that Stevens recruit the former housekeeper at the estate to come back and work for him.
So Stevens begins to tell his story. Initially, he’s not very likeable – he’s a class-conscious member of the servant class, a stiff-upper-lip fellow if there ever was one. But as he tells his story you begin to realize that his world has been swept away.
The master he served so loyally in the period between the World Wars, Lord Darlington, was a German sympathizer whose reputation was ruined after the German foreign minister became a frequent houseguest at the lord’s invitation. (In one excruciating scene, Lord Darlington tells Stevens to fire a couple of maids because they’re Jewish. You know, you wouldn’t want to upset the guests.)
Stevens was in love with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper his new boss wants to recruit. She was also in love with Stevens, but he was so bound by the conventions of his role he could never bring himself to reveal his feelings.
As the story commences you realize that Stevens’ whole way of viewing the world, his affection for the proprieties, the rules he lives by, are becoming outmoded; everything he has devoted his life to is vanishing. He has put some things off for too long:
Once, Stephens says, he assumed “one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding”. We recognize his prevaricating in ourselves – we have all told ourselves that we had an indefinite period of time to make connections and amends.
Ishiguro loves to try out different forms, and his 2000 novel, When We Were Orphans, is a kind of detective story – it is about Christopher Banks, a private investigator based in London. He is quite successful, but he is obsessed with solving the disappearance of his parents, 20 years earlier, in Shanghai. He remembers that his parents had a falling out because of his dad’s participation in the opium trade, but he doesn’t understand why they vanished.
He returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery of what happened to his parents and walks right into the 1937 Japanese invasion of that Chinese city. This is a complex, many layered book, and Banks, the detective, has a lot in common with the butler in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day – he tells himself (and the reader) a lot of things that may or may not be true – another unreliable narrator that keeps the reader guessing.
His 2005 book, Never Let Me Go, was something else altogether. You could call it science fiction, or you could call it a fable on the order of Animal Farm, but it was completely chilling. The novel, set in an alternate (I hope) future, is about human clones, who are being raised so that their organs will eventually be harvested.
This terrible fact comes upon the reader gradually. These parentless children are sent to special schools, and in some respects the children are treated pretty well – self-expression is encouraged, and a healthy lifestyle is absolutely insisted on. But, while the children get a lot of attention, the reader gradually realizes that their environment is made up of second-hand castoffs. No one prepares them for any kind of future. These parentless children are at the mercy of an absolutely heartless system.
I found this novel so disturbing that I couldn’t finish it. There’s something about Ishiguro’s construction of this world that made it so believable – the kids bicker and fight and fall in love just like any other group of youngsters. Not for the faint of heart. If one of Ishiguro’s favorite themes is about loss, this book is about a society that has lost its soul.