Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3615
As a writer, Ishiguro has remained very modest about his fame. In particular, he has rejected claims that his first two novels, despite their setting and Japanese characters, offer a realistic picture of his home country, which he did not see between 1960 and 1989. Instead, he has insisted that...
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- Critical Essays
As a writer, Ishiguro has remained very modest about his fame. In particular, he has rejected claims that his first two novels, despite their setting and Japanese characters, offer a realistic picture of his home country, which he did not see between 1960 and 1989. Instead, he has insisted that it is a character’s memory of a conflict in life that held his artistic interest in the writing. Thus, the role of memory has been central in all of Ishiguro’s novels, and the ambiguity and unreliability of memory is a key topic of his fiction.
Ishiguro’s choice of protagonists demonstrates his basic reluctance to look for obvious links between his characters and himself, an authorial strategy that he rejects. Thus, even his Japanese characters rely for their existence primarily on the author’s imagination and artistic skills, rather than on his self-observation. Neither Etsuko Sheringham, the widowed Japanese mother who moved to England with her second husband, a Briton, and who tells the story of Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills, nor the old painter Masuji Ono, whose diary constitutes the text of An Artist of the Floating World, can be seen to represent an authorial alter ego. By making the quintessential English figure of a butler his third protagonist in The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro attempted a quantum leap of the imagination. In return, the brilliant success of his butler, Stevens, entangled in the question of whether he has wasted his life serving a corrupt lord, triumphantly demonstrates his author’s mastery of his artistic goal of focusing on the human condition as it is revealed through the crises of diverse characters anywhere in the world.
With the pianist Ryder in The Unconsoled, Ishiguro created a character who inhabits a surreal world on the border between dream and reality. Through Ryder’s extremely subjective and obscure narrative, the novel probes the role and responsibility of the artist vis-à-vis his or her community. Through Christopher Banks of When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro challenged the conventions of the crime novel. While depicted as a kind of Sherlock Holmes, Banks, like the comic-book hero Batman, turned to solving crimes after a crime perpetrated against his parents. Just before the Japanese attack on China in 1937, Banks returns to Shanghai, where he grew up before his parents were kidnapped decades earlier, making him a de facto orphan moving to London. Unlike fellow British writer J. G. Ballard, whose semiautobiographical novels Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) bestow an alienating perspective on the Japanese attack by being told from the viewpoint of an imaginative boy, Ishiguro alienates Banks from reality by his uncertain memory and perception. With Kathy H., protagonist of Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro returned to a female first-person narrator.
Apart from Ishiguro’s determination to avoid simple realism and rely instead on sheer artistic imagination and later outright fantasy when creating his fictional worlds, Ishiguro’s novels are driven by their first-person narrators. The reader soon discovers that these central voices are rather unreliable in their accounts of past reactions to crises. For all of them, there lurks in the past an experience that may invalidate their projected sense of self and destroy their human dignity. What exactly it is that hovers in the dark as each novel opens is a mystery that unravels only slowly, and the process keeps the reader on edge until a final climactic revelation. Even then, however, pieces of the central mystery are still left to the reader to resolve.
In a move that would become typical of his fiction, Ishiguro opens A Pale View of Hills with the narrator seemingly in control, living through a brief, critical moment in the present. As small events trigger a stream of personal memories, answers emerge to questions that the narrator—like all Ishiguro’s central characters—refuses to discuss openly. Accordingly, the novel moves along two temporal planes after Etsuko Sheringham is visited at her home in England by Niki, her younger daughter by her late second husband. This visit comes soon after the suicide of Niki’s older, Japan-born half sister, Keiko. In a similar vein, Ono’s worries in An Artist of the Floating World that his artistic support for the imperialists during World War II may endanger the marriage chances for his second daughter, Noriko, and the even less dramatic occasion of Stevens’s first holiday after a lifetime of service in The Remains of the Day function as catalysts for the protagonists’ surveys of their lives.
In The Unconsoled, Ryder is about to give a piano recital in an unnamed European city. In the first of the novel’s surreal, nightmarish sequences, Ryder has lost his schedule on the plane and nobody is able, or willing, to provide him with a replacement. This situation, named Kafkaesque by a variety of not entirely positive critics, triggers Ryder’s increasing confusion within a shadowy world where not just memory but also reality changes from one minute to the next, creating illogical events symbolizing Ryder’s mental confusion.
In When We Were Orphans, Christopher Banks appears in a more conventional world, yet when he finally reunites with his surviving mother after World War II, the event may be far less hopeful than he interprets it to be. In Never Let Me Go, Kathy’s memories of her apparently idyllic childhood are juxtaposed with the fantastic elements of an alternate version of late 1990’s British society, where clones are bred to serve as organ donors.
In a pattern that again foreshadows how later characters will interact with one another, in Ishiguro’s first novel the mother and daughter communicate on a very formal, restrained level. Their polite style of talking allows neither mother nor daughter to say what is really on her mind. At the most, their discussions admit a bitter irony that may hint at the truth. Instead of discussing their problems openly, Ishiguro’s pair hovers together on the abyss opened by Keiko’s death. It is only through Etsuko’s memories, and her haunting recurring dream about a young girl, that the extent of her pain becomes visible: Indelibly impressed in her mind is the question of whether her divorce, her subsequent marriage to a Westerner, and her departure from her native land somehow caused the desperate act of her elder daughter.
Ono and Stevens, too, have a characteristic, roundabout way of dealing with their problems, the very existence of which is unearthed only slowly. With Ryder, the reader is left confused as to the exact nature of his problems. Detective Banks persuades himself that his mother always loved him, but this may be a delusion. Kathy manages to talk to Madame and Miss Emily, the women in charge of rearing her for the cloning program, yet their polite talk fails to bring about a change or a resolution.
While A Pale View of Hills, which receives its title from the view of Nagasaki’s hills visible from Etsuko’s apartment in Japan, centers mostly on a question of personal guilt, it also contains the story of Etsuko’s first father-in-law, Seiji Ogata, a former teacher now publicly denounced by one of his former students for his imperialist leanings during World War II.
This conflict of a man trying to come to terms with his past actions in a broad historical setting is the artistic center of Ishiguro’s second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, and is also a powerful theme in The Remains of the Day, where Stevens’s dead master is revealed to have been a Nazi sympathizer. The question of fascism occurs in Ishiguro’s next novels as well. In The Unconsoled, Ryder’s artistic rival Christoff represents what critics have called musical fascism. When We Were Orphans addresses both British imperialism in early twentieth century China and Japan’s attack on China in 1937. Only a totalitarian state could ever carry out a program to clone people as future organ donors, as described in Never Let Me Go.
Ishiguro has constantly changed and developed the voices of his protagonists. While Etsuko’s thoughts are related to the reader with common directness, Ishiguro’s next novels more ambitiously try to call attention to the fact of their narrators’ subjective coloring of events. A first step to distance them is to have them write, rather than think, their narratives; the next action involves the creation of an unmistakably personal voice for each character. While Stevens’s English approximates the language used by a servant to speak to the upper classes in mid-twentieth century Great Britain, Ono’s voice is even more complexly constructed. The proposition, advanced by the text, is that his narrative is really a translation from the painter’s original Japanese and thus reflects the limitations of his vision. Ono himself confesses to this idea as he tries to explain why he created patriotic paintings that the war party used as propaganda before and during World War II:But then I for one never saw things too clearly. A narrow artist’s perspective. . . . Why, even now, I find it hard to think of the world extending much beyond this city.
With Ryder, Ishiguro developed the point of narrative unreliability to the point of surrealism. Critics did not like Ishiguro’s radical break with narrative conventions, and Christopher Banks’s narrative is more smooth and reliable than Ryder’s. Even Banks’s rendition of reality, however, is highly subjective. Kathy more reliably relates the facts of a world that feels itself like an opaque nightmare.
After putting his characters through a mental wringer that forces and squeezes them into confronting what they have made of their lives, Ishiguro does offer them a glimpse of hope. Etsuko, purified by her memories, is able to wave good-bye to Niki with a smile. The old Japanese men of the war generation, Ono and Ogata, win a tranquility of spirit that allows them to retire from active life with grace and leave the field to their children, even though the punishment represented through their loss of prestige and social esteem should not be underestimated. Stevens, after he has realized what his “great” service to his lord has really cost him—he has denied his affection for his father and never allowed himself to see the love in the eyes of a female colleague—finally understands what he has lost and, with typical understatement, decides on some crucial changes in his no-longer-cheerless life.
During the three days in which The Unconsoled takes place, Ryder’s mind hovers between waking and dreaming. Here, realism alternates with surrealism in a style mindful of the work of avant-garde Japanese author Kb Abe. Abe’s surreal novels, such as Moetsukita chizu (1967; The Ruined Map, 1969), where a detective assumes the identity of the man he is hired to find, may remind the reader of Ishiguro’s deconstruction of the conventions of the mystery genre in When We Were Orphans. Kathy H. and her fellow clones patiently accept their inhuman fate in Never Let Me Go with a kind of fatalism mindful of Stevens’s acceptance of his role as butler. Unlike for Stevens, there does not seem to be a change in store for Kathy. She ends her story on a note of quiet resignation.
In his literary works, Ishiguro has created an increasingly fantastic world. In his novels, his protagonists observe with keen verbal precision and deep emotional introspection an oppressive situation.
An Artist of the Floating World
First published: 1986
Type of work: Novel
After World War II, a Japanese painter, whose work had glorified the war, learns that the next generation does not blame him only because it considers him irrelevant.
Addressing the reader like an old friend in what reads like portions of a diary, the old Japanese painter Masuji Ono, the narrator of Ishiguro’s second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, uses the imminent marriage negotiations for his younger daughter, Noriko, in 1948 to reflect on his life and his career as an artist. Characteristically for Ishiguro, everything that the reader learns comes directly from the first-person narrator, whose account freely wanders from the present to various instances in the past, deliberately refusing to tell a chronological story. The narrator’s voice also is highly subjective and cannot be trusted blindly.
Thus, through Ono’s musings the reader becomes gradually acquainted with the narrator’s troubled career, which is related in a total of four diary entries spanning the years 1948 to 1950. Starting as a fashionable artist who took his themes and motifs from the underworld—the Japanese term is “Floating World”—of the bohemians, artists, and geishas of his unnamed city, Ono eventually denounced his “decadence” during the rise of imperialism in Japan in the 1930’s. As a rebel against his old master Matsuda, the young Ono now painted pieces that, like his masterpiece Complacency, attacked what he felt was the corruption of an aimless, modern world—here represented by three drinking men—and juxtaposed it with “heroic” images, such as the band of angry young men confronting the well-dressed drinkers in his picture.
Success came almost immediately, and Ono did not have to illustrate comic books, as his master scornfully predicted. However, Ono’s masterful pictures also became powerful tools of imperial propaganda. To reinforce the issue of Ono’s personal guilt, Ishiguro creates a close parallel between Ono’s earlier rejection by his bohemian teacher, Matsuda, who cruelly confiscates Ono’s pictures when he changes artistic directions and joins the “patriotic” cause, and Ono’s own denunciation of his favorite pupil to the secret police in the 1930’s.
Like the former teacher, Seiji Ogata, in Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), Ono supports the imperialist Committee on Unpatriotic Activities—an institution that is Ishiguro’s symbol for the wrongs of a system that betrayed the idealism of those who, with exuberant naïveté, put their talents in its service. Confronted with the consequences of his patriotism, Ono now must ask himself whether he wasted or abused his talents by serving the Devil.
Ishiguro’s resolution to Ono’s crisis, however, is marked by a disarming, gently ironic humanism. Finally ready to admit to his daughter’s potential in-laws that he has, in fact, erred and been guilty, Ono’s grand confession is brushed aside by the groom’s family, who tell the old man that they regard his former political leanings as irrelevant to their son’s marriage; the painter was never that important. Guilty but ignored by a young generation too busy to worry about old men, Ono can watch mirthfully as the young prepare to embark on their own lives.
The Remains of the Day
First published: 1989
Type of work: Novel
Given his first holiday by his new American master, an old British butler reflects on a lifetime of service as he travels to meet an old friend.
Ishiguro’s third novel, The Remains of the Day, which won Great Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for 1989, undertakes to demonstrate with beautiful clarity how high the human price can be for a person who has dedicated his or her life to a goal that becomes tainted. Set in southern England in the summer of 1956, the novel consists of the diary-like notes composed by Stevens, a British butler whose lifelong goal was to serve Lord Darlington. Now, after the death of the lord, the mansion, complete with its prime servant, has been taken over by an American. Offered his first vacation, Stevens sets out for Cornwall to meet Mrs. Alice Benn, who, as Miss Kenton, had worked with him in the heyday of Darlington Hall.
In the course of Stevens’s travels to his final destination, his personal recollections evoke an imaginary England that is made perfect by reason of an understated greatness that simply exists, refusing pompously to announce itself. The source of Stevens’s pride, contentment, and self-worth has always been that he has served at the “hub” of his great island’s society; his greatest goal was always to be a perfect butler to a perfect lord.
Stevens’s ideal is tested in a variety of ways as he remembers amusing anecdotes and darker experiences. When the reader is first told how William Stevens, the butler’s father, had to serve a general whose incompetence had killed his oldest son, and how he did so with “great” composure, the full price for Stevens’s ideal becomes visible. Following his father’s steps, Stevens later flawlessly serves Lord Darlington at a crucial function while his own father, whom old age saw descending in rank to that of a glorified busboy, dies in the attic, and Miss Kenton—and not Stevens—closes his eyes.
Another ambiguity is examined as the reader gradually learns that Lord Darlington—required by Stevens’s definition to be a great man, in order to bestow greatness on his butler—has fallen far short of that distinction. Moved by private pity for the defeated Germans after World War I, the lord gradually becomes an avid sympathizer with the Nazis, and his reputation is destroyed by a related scandal. By 1956, the late Lord Darlington’s name has become a badge of shame.
If Stevens is made to suffer like the millions of citizens of the Axis nations—among them Japan—who decided to trust and follow leaders who pursued aggression and atrocities until defeated in a bitter collapse, Ishiguro’s novel constitutes a highly critical examination of the price of self-neglecting, uncritical, and total service. Though Darlington’s betrayal is bitter, The Remains of the Day points out that even if Stevens had served a better lord, he would still have suffered.
The key is the character of Miss Kenton. Stevens’s complete failure to decipher her signals of affection bestows an exquisite sense of melancholy upon the book. The saddest moment arrives when the two meet again in Cornwall, and she finally spells out her now-impossible love for Stevens, whose heart breaks for a moment before he accepts his fate and politely helps her onto the bus for her return to her husband. Now Stevens achieves full tragic status and realizes that his talents may well have been wasted on Lord Darlington. In a decision that echoes existential philosophy, Stevens decides to try to be a better butler to the American by improving his skill in “bantering,” light irony that he hopes may bring some human warmth to Darlington Hall. Thus, Ishiguro gives his most tragic character a ray of hope that may guide him beyond the sadness of a life falsely sacrificed.
Never Let Me Go
First published: 2005
Type of work: Novel
Through his protagonist, Kathy H., Ishiguro reveals an alternate English society where clones are groomed to become organ donors, ultimately leading to their deaths.
Never Let Me Go tranquilly opens with thirty-one-year-old Kathy H., a “carer” for “donors” who will mysteriously “complete,” that is, die, who is about to become a donor herself. Kathy seizes this moment to relate her apparently idyllic childhood at the boarding school of Hailsham, England. In the polite, reserved tone typical of Ishiguro’s first-person narrators, Kathy tells of her youth and that of her friends, cocky Ruth and misfit Tommy, who interact with a cast of fellow pupils at this apparently everyday upscale British institution. The reader of Never Let Me Go quickly realizes that there is a dark mystery at the root of Kathy’s recollection. Soon, the reader learns that Kathy lives in a dystopian alternate world where clones are raised to be harvested for their organs until they “complete” (die), generally after their fourth “donation.” The casual use of these euphemistic terms for barbarous acts is a strong motif of the novel.
The novel has a particularly haunting quality because Kathy, like all of her peers, quietly accepts the strange life for which they are being groomed. The title refers to Kathy’s favorite song at Hailsham. It is sung by a fictional woman singer, whom Kathy imagines is tightly holding on to her baby—a poignant fantasy, as all clones are infertile.
After graduating from Hailsham, Kathy and some of her peers are moved to the Cottages, where they live somewhat aimless lives. Ruth and Tommy become lovers while Kathy, who also loves Tommy, looks on. Their destiny catches up with them when “donations” of organs begin. Kathy cares for Ruth, a “donor,” who “completes” (dies). With Tommy next in line, he and Kathy realize their love and visit their former teacher, Madame, and Miss Emily, the headmistress of Hailsham. Miss Emily reveals the truth behind the cloning program. She also states that Hailsham was closed in favor of functional breeding centers that openly disregard a clone’s humanity. After Tommy dies, Kathy drives to Norfolk, forlornly gazing at the North Sea with a quiet, sad acceptance of her fate.
The plot may appear too far-fetched to be happening in late 1990’s England, when the novel takes place. However, read as a dystopian extrapolation of a society that grooms some of its members to serve others to their death, the novel’s theme is far less impossible. Kathy and her peers act with a quiet sense of duty. They do so in the same way that butler Stevens served Nazi-sympathizing Lord Darlington in The Remains of the Day or other Ishiguro characters served Japanese militarism. In letting Kathy tell of her dystopian world, Never Let Me Go emerges as a poignant tale of the dangers of acquiescence and the high cost of lives wasted nobly for the wrong cause.