Kazuo Ishiguro

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Kazuo Ishiguro 1954?–

Japanese novelist and short story writer.

Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki and grew up in England. His debut novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), has drawn favorable response from critics who describe his writing as subtle, graceful, and full of promise.

A Pale View of Hills focuses on the private despair of Etsuko, a young woman who survived the bombing of Nagasaki and moved to England after the war. In a broader sense, the bombing symbolizes the loss of a culture and the alienation of a people trying to cope with the modern world.

Kirkus Reviews

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[A Pale View of Hills depicts the] present-day troubles and dark memories of Etsuko, a Nagasaki woman now living alone in England—in a strongly moody but ineffectually structured first novel. Etsuko is now alone, divorced; one daughter, Keiko, has committed suicide; the other, Niki, English-born, lives unmarried with a man in London. And these very un-Japanese social circumstances direct Etsuko's musings back to the time in Nagasaki, a year or so after the Bomb, when things started to unravel…. [Even] more disturbing [is the] anarchic story of Etsuko's friend Sachiko—who accepted the lies and evasions of an American boyfriend, even though this led to the horrendous maltreatment of her little girl, Mariko. (Mariko, emotionally battered by neglect, wandered the canals at night, unmissed, a walking symbol of victimized Nagasaki.) Throughout the novel there's a distant overtone of destruction hovering—pieces of lives that can never be rejoined. But Ishiguro, who writes in English, pulls things seriously out of kilter with … bad weighting of flashback/flashforward technique: the doses of memory are numbing, hard to swim free from when the book attempts to pitch ahead into the present. And the result is evocative but oppressively unfocused fiction.

A review of "A Pale View of Hills," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1982 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. L, No. 4, February 15, 1982, p. 224.

James Campbell

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One of Kazuo Ishiguro's themes … is the conflict between the traditional and the modern worlds. [In A Pale View of Hills] it is set against the background of the bombing of Nagasaki…. I first came across Mr Ishiguro's work in Faber's Introduction 7, where his story 'A Strange and Sometimes Sadness' impressed me as the work of a delicate and imaginative mind. A Pale View of Hills certainly fulfils the promise. The narrator is a middle-aged Japanese woman who, having lived through the bombing, is now resident in England. Her narrative switches in time between the present and the period just after the war, when the dust raised by the bomb is still very much in the air, and when she was in the role of a subservient wife. In the eyes of everyone, and in all senses, she appears to have survived. Nothing is necessarily as it seems, however; the terrible events prove to have had more than just a physically destructive effect, and Mr Ishiguro's double-barrelled narrative device enables him to show the past determining the present. In Etsuko's present life as much as in her past, she is encircled by a chain of death which has its beginning in the war. The Japanese sections centre around some mysterious killings and Etsuko's uneasy relationship with her friend's daughter; things begin to look sinister when, in the present, she starts dreaming about a little girl 'swinging'. What is most impressive about this novel is the way in which the author manages to blend the historical and psychological dimensions, so that his protagonist is a creation of her times. It is all done with subtlety, but if there is a fault it...

(This entire section contains 339 words.)

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is that the incidental detail is not sufficiently filled in. Some characters are rather faceless, and the dialogue is vapid in places. Perhaps after this fine first novel, Kazuo Ishiguro will risk a little more in the realm of style.

James Campbell, "Kitchen Window," in New Statesman (© 1982 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 103, No. 2657, February 19, 1982, p. 25.∗

Paul Bailey

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Kazuo Ishiguro has written a first novel of uncommon delicacy. A Pale View of Hills is an extremely quiet study of extreme emotional turbulence, which summons up the various nightmares of a survivor of Nagasaki in a manner that will probably perplex those readers who like to swallow their horrors whole or enjoy being told the worst, at length. It is not Ishiguro's intention to "do" Nagasaki, as other novelists have recently "done" Buchenwald and Babi Yar. Far from it; his commitment in this book is to a private desolation, and he honours that commitment to the letter….

The greater part of A Pale View of Hills takes place during that immediately post-war summer in Nagasaki. Etsuko remembers a woman called Sachiko, who lives with her daughter, Mariko, in a wooden cottage that "had survived both the devastation of the war and the government bulldozers". Sachiko is to all intents and purposes a vagrant, ekeing out an existence on the money she scrounges off gullible people like her new friend, Etsuko. She has immense pride, and cannot disguise the fact that she was born considerably higher up the social scale than her present life would indicate. Etsuko is intrigued by this aloof and elegant outcast and her strangely alienated offspring, and allows herself to be used by Sachiko for their benefit. Sachiko, with her talk of the American lover, Frank, who is soon going to return to the United States with a Japanese wife and stepdaughter, is a vivid presence. Her relationship with the dull, solicitous young housewife who helps her when she is at her most distressed is beautifully suggested in a series of decorous conversations that become increasingly revealing as the story develops. It is what happens to poor little Mariko, however, that is at the heart of the novel and gives it its resonance, and this too is suggested with great attention to the effect it had, and has, on Etsuko's life. Ishiguro very cleverly shows a person exploring the unhappiness of her own past by concentrating on other people….

A Pale View of Hills works largely by inference. My only criticism is that at certain points I could have done with something as crude as a fact. Almost nothing is said, for example, about Etsuko's second husband, who would appear to have been a man of some intelligence. [Her daughter] Keiko's withdrawal from him, and consequently from her mother, is only hinted at, yet it would seem to be the most traumatic event in the whole sad story. It is very skilful of Kazuo Ishiguro to leave out, as it were, the major part of the tragedy in order to examine its origins, but the absence of the successful journalist and lecturer who whisked Etsuko off to England becomes worrying towards the end of the narrative. In all other respects though, this is a bravely reticent novel, courageous in its self-effacement, its honourable—and unfashionable—refusal to show off the possibilities of the Novel. A Pale View of Hills is concerned with more important matters.

Paul Bailey, "Private Desolations," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4116, February 19, 1982, p. 179.

Francis King

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Although Mr Ishiguro has spent most of his life in England and has even acquired an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, [A Pale View of Hills] is typically Japanese in its compression, its reticence and in its exclusion of all details not absolutely essential to its theme. It might, one feels, be some apprentice work by Kawabata or Endo, its dialogue rendered slightly stilted by translation. It is a memorable and moving work, its elements of past and present, of Japan and England held together by a shimmering, all but invisible net of images linked to each other by filaments at once tenuous and immensely strong. (pp. 24-5)

Francis King, "Shimmering," in The Spectator (© 1982 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 248, No. 8016, February 27, 1982, pp. 24-5.

Edith Milton

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["A Pale View of Hills"] is narrated by a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who, like the author, was born in Nagasaki and lives in England. Widowed by the death of her second, English, husband, and mourning the suicide of her first, Japanese, daughter, Etsuko finds herself recalling random moments of a summer in Nagasaki during the 1950's. It was the summer of her brief, enigmatic friendship with Sachiko, the woman next door, and the time of her meeting with Sachiko's disturbing and troubled child, Mariko….

Etsuko's memories, though they focus on her neighbor's sorrows and follies, clearly refer to herself as well. The lives of the two women run parallel, and Etsuko, like Sachiko, has raised a deeply disturbed daughter; like her, she has turned away from the strangling role of traditional Japanese housewife toward the West, where she has discovered freedom of a sort, but also an odd lack of depth, commitment and continuity.

Still, this is no indictment of the unhappy changes which have drowned an old culture. In fact, Kazuo Ishiguro suggests that the honor of the past was itself more than a little tarnished…. As for the future, it appears to belong to Etsuko's second daughter, Niki, a hybrid of East and West, loyal to nothing, attached to no one, ignorant and disorganized; she is also, however, entirely honest and admirably free of prejudices and compulsions. She may, the book suggests, be the best of an indifferent bargain; then again, she may not.

A delicate, ironic, elliptical novel, "A Pale View of Hills" means much more than it says. Etsuko has been a musician, and in her mind themes and images echo and repeat in a contrapuntal arrangement of increasing power. Sachiko's failed motherhood resonates against Etsuko's. The two women mirror each other's ambivalence about having abandoned the accepted modes for Japanese wives and widows. The images of kittens being drowned, a rope twisted around Etsuko's sandal, a girl dangling from a swing, the reappearing phantom of a long-dead woman who has killed her baby and the haunting absence of the lives and customs blown away by the war reverberate and multiply, suggesting by repetition a scale much larger than that implied by any individual image. Sachiko and Etsuko become minor figures in a greater pattern of betrayal, infanticide and survival played out against the background of Nagasaki, itself the absolute emblem of our genius for destruction.

The story, following its narrator's memory, begins after the bombing of Nagasaki, but that event lies at its center. Barely touched upon, mentioned only by innuendo, the destruction of Nagasaki appears as a vacuum defined only by the misplaced lives and the disjointed modes of survival which derive from it. But in this book, where what is stated is often less important than what is left unsaid, those blanked-out days around the bomb's explosion become the paradigm of modern life. They are the ultimate example of qualities which the novel celebrates: the brilliance of our negative invention, and our infinite talent for living beyond annihilation as if we had forgotten it. (p. 13)

Edith Milton, "In a Japan Like Limbo," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1982, pp. 12-13.∗

Penelope Lively

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The impact of A Pale View of Hills … is out of all proportion to both its length and its slight plot. The narrator, Etsuko, resident in England, recalls her relationship with another woman in Nagasaki many years before, and the odd and slightly sinister events surrounding it; her recollections take place during a visit from her daughter by her English husband, her elder, Japanese, daughter having recently committed suicide. The daughter leaves; the recollection ends without any actual completion of the brief tale of the mother and child with whom it is concerned. And the novel finishes on a dying fall that is both unsettling and a little baffling—which indeed has been its effect throughout. For its strength is a remarkable quality of style in which dialogue and narration are unemphasised and yet oddly powerful. It is the kind of writing in which one searches in frustration for the source of its effects; sparse, precise and plain, the language has a stealth that leaves you with images that are suggested rather than stated. Trying to pin this down, I turned back through the pages looking for the description of a certain room: it was not there, was a product of my own imagination. And this is a subtle power for a writer to have—the ability to prompt a creative response in the reader, to arouse reactions which must be quite individual, so that the book takes as many forms as it has readers. It can only be done by means of this stylistic negativism, and the danger of course is that it overreaches itself and lapses into blandness. Once or twice A Pale View of Hills threatens to do this, but on the whole the effect is one of extraordinary tension, of implied griefs and evils.

The setting of Etsuko's recollection of her Japanese past is not arbitrary. It is Nagasaki, and the shadow of the bomb lies over the place and the people. The sad, wild, neglected child—Mariko—of Etsuko's friend Sachiko has seen "terrible things." A new Japan is emerging from the ashes of the old, and the conflict between the two generations is neatly and economically presented in the frustrated confrontation between Etsuko's father-in-law, a retired teacher, and the young colleague who has attacked his old-fashioned teaching methods….

But the real subject of Etsuko's recollection is Sachiko, the woman who has fallen on hard times and who preys on Etsuko's good nature—borrowing money, dumping her child—while with quiet desperation she pursues the American GI who may be her passport to better things. Sachiko is an elegant opportunist, and her conversations with Etsuko are masterpieces of Ishiguro's loaded writing: dialogue of wonderful delicacy in which Sachiko bolsters up her own amour-propre, keeps the younger woman in her place, and conceals—almost, but not quite—her bitterness and panic…. Behind the unadorned narrative, so deliberately devoid either of explanation or of descriptive indulgence, lurks a sense of menace and of sadness. As a first novel this book is remarkable; its control and economy look like the work of a much more experienced writer. (p. 90)

Penelope Lively, "Backwards and Forwards," in Encounter (© 1982 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LVIII, No. 6 and Vol. LIX. No. 1, June-July, 1982, pp. 86-91.∗


Ishiguro, Kazuo (Vol. 110)