A common link among Kazuo Ishiguro’s (born 8 November 1954) novels is the prominence of the first-person narrator, through whose meandering thoughts the story unfolds. Readers soon discover, however, that these central voices are rather unreliable in their accounts of past reactions to crises. For each, there lurks in the past an experience that may invalidate the narrator’s projected sense of self and destroy the vestiges of the individual’s 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 remain left to the reader to put together.
Throughout his literary work, Ishiguro has created a wide range of characters, settings, and plots and has worked in many genres. He has been equally successful in creating female and male central characters. One important recurring theme has been the role that memory plays in shaping characters’ understanding of themselves. Ishiguro also demonstrates persistent concern with power and the effects of authoritarian ideologies.
A Pale View of Hills
In a move that would become typical for his fiction, Ishiguro opens his first novel, 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 of 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 second (now dead) British husband; that visit comes just after the suicide of Niki’s elder, Japan-born sister, Keiko.
In a pattern that again foreshadows how later characters will interact with one another, mother and daughter communicate on a very formal, restrained level that allows neither to say what is really on her mind; instead, they hover together on the abyss opened by Keiko’s death. Niki justifies her refusal to go to Keiko’s funeral: For many years before she left the family home in the South to go away to Manchester, Keiko had locked herself up in her room, emerging only to commence bitter fights with her stepfather and half sister.
It is only through Etsuko’s memories, and her haunting recurring dream about a young girl, that the extent of Etsuko’s pain becomes visible. About five years after the atom bomb was dropped on her native town of Nagasaki, Etsuko was pregnant with her first child by her Japanese husband, Jiro Ogata. Living in a newly built concrete high-rise at the edge of the city just as it was beginning to come to life again, she initiated a friendship with a war widow, Sachiko, who lived with her ten-year-old daughter, Mariko, in a riverbank cottage across a muddy wasteland. The war years had deeply touched Mariko, who witnessed how a young mother drowned her baby and later killed herself in Tokyo. Now she was fantasizing about a woman coming at night with a lantern and guiding her across the river, where hills rise above Nagasaki’s port. These hills were visible to Etsuko from her apartment, and it is to them that they all went on a day of rare happiness for Mariko.
When Frank, Sachiko’s American lover, whom Mariko deeply resented for his Western-style behavior—“ He pisses like a pig,” she said—finally seemed ready to take them to the United States, Sachiko went out to drown Mariko’s kittens, which could not go with them. In a stunning move characteristic of Ishiguro’s love of close parallelisms, the second drowning quite clearly echoes the wartime murder of the baby; both older women turned to Mariko, revealing their wet victims to the child.
Following them, Etsuko took up a lantern and went to the river; trying to soothe a despondent Mariko, she suddenly spoke as if she were the mother, about to leave Japan. To bring home this sudden point of ambivalent narration, Etsuko gives Niki a calendar picture taken from the hills, remarking that it was Keiko, not Mariko as related earlier, who had been “happy that day.” The reader thus realizes that Sachiko’s cruel treatment of her daughter, Mariko, reflects Etsuko’s own fear that she may be guilty of Keiko’s death because she left Japan with her second, British husband when the girl was quite small. Ishiguro ends the novel, however, with Niki’s departure as Etsuko, purified by her memories, is able to wave good-bye with a smile.
While A Pale View of Hills 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 made 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.
An Artist of the Floating World
Written like a diary entry to be shared with a close friend, An Artist of the FloatingWorld allows Ishiguro to develop further the subjective mind-set of a narrator, in this case the old painter Masuji Ono, and the gradual resurfacing of suppressed memories. Like that of Etsuko in A Pale View of Hills, however, Ono’s interpretation of the past cannot be trusted fully.
The reader becomes gradually acquainted with Ono’s troubled career as, in the present of the postwar period of 1948, the old man worries about marriage negotiations for his second daughter; these negotiations, he fears, may fall through because of his past acts. Starting as a fashionable artist who had taken his themes and motifs from the underworld—the Japanese term is “Floating World”—of the bohemians, artists, and geishas of his unnamed city, Ono denounced his “decadence” during the rise of imperialism in the 1930’s. Rebelling against his old master, the young Ono now painted pieces in the style of “patriotic realism” preferred by the Militarists.
Success came almost immediately, but Ono’s masterful pictures became powerful tools of imperial propaganda as well. To reinforce the issue of Ono’s personal guilt, Ishiguro creates again a close parallel between Ono’s earlier rejection by his bohemian teacher, who cruelly confiscates his pictures when Ono changes artistic direction and joins the “patriotic” cause, and Ono’s own denunciation of his favorite pupil to the secret police in the 1930’s. Like Ogata in A Pale View of Hills, 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.
Yet again, Ishiguro’s resolution to Ono’s crisis 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 finds his grand confession brushed aside by the groom’s family, who tell the old man that they regard his former political leanings as irrelevant to the marriage; he was never that important. Ono’s being put in his place by the next generation of Japanese (including his daughter) is a variation on what happens to the character Ogata in Ishiguro’s first novel. There, Ogata’s son Jiro refuses to finish a game of chess—symbol for a traditional fighting spirit—with his father. In the end, the old men in both novels come to accept postwar rejection and being politely put aside as instances of the eternal rebellion of the young, just as they had once rebelled. Thus, after confronting their pasts, Ono and Ogata win a final serenity that allows them to retreat without bitterness and to watch mirthfully as the young prepare to embark on their own lives.
The Remains of the Day
As if Ishiguro considered that the punishment for these two old men had been perhaps a bit too light, even though their loss of prestige and social esteem should not be underestimated, in The Remains of the Day he undertakes to demonstrate with beautiful clarity how high the human price can be for a person who has dedicated his life to a goal that becomes tainted. Set in southern England in the summer of 1956, The Remains of the Day closely follows in format the structure of An Artist of the Floating World. This time, the first-person narrator and protagonist is Stevens, a British butler whose lifelong goal has been to serve Lord Darlington; now, after the death of the lord, his mansion, complete with its prime servant, has been taken over by an American named Farraday. Offered his first vacation, Stevens sets out to Cornwall to meet Mrs. Alice Benn, who as Miss Kenton had worked with him in the heyday of Darlington Hall.
Again Ishiguro envisions a masterfully developed central character whose mind the reader is allowed to enter through the character’s diary or notes. Ishiguro’s well-matured craft and skill as a storyteller have created arguably his most fascinating character in Stevens, who is at once powerful through the strength of unrelentingly upheld convictions and beautifully fragile in his total, self-effacing devotion to an unattainable ideal.
In the course of Stevens’s travels to his final destination, his personal recollections evoke an imaginary England that is “perfect” by presenting an understated greatness that simply exists, refusing pompously to announce itself. This theme is exemplified when Stevens views the landscape of Oxfordshire, which, for him, unlike the overwhelmingly grand but also gaudy natural wonders of the United States, is “great” by virtue of its unobtrusive beauty. The source of Stevens’s pride, contentment, and feeling of self-worth has been that he has served at the “hub” of the society of this great island; his greatest goal has always been to be perfect butler to a perfect lord. For Ishiguro, the unstated parallel of this relationship is that between samurai and daimyo, a relationship dignified by mutual loyalty; his novel sets out to examine the consequences for the butler-samurai.
Insofar as Stevens’s definition of a “great” butler requires the ability to maintain “a dignity in keeping with his position,” Ishiguro’s protagonist fulfills the requirement. In a move characteristic of Ishiguro’s way of working with his main themes, Stevens’s ideals are tested in a variety of ways, ranging from amusing anecdotes to memories of the feats of his father, William, to experiences of his own. It is such an instance of “great” service that powerfully shows the full extent of the moral darkness that becomes associated with the idea, when the reader first is told how William Stevens had to serve a general whose incompetence had killed his oldest son—and gave his large tip to charity. Following in his father’s footsteps, Stevens later flawlessly serves Lord Darlington at a crucial function while his father, who with advancing age has descended in rank to that of a glorified busboy, dies in the attic and Miss Kenton—not Stevens—closes the old man’s 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 Nazi regime in the 1930’s, and his reputation is destroyed by a related political scandal, the exact nature of which is not elucidated in the novel. By 1956, Lord Darlington’s name has become a badge of shame, and his former butler deliberately denies his connections with the man to whom he has devoted his life. Here, actions like those of the previous novels’ characters of Ogata and Ono are depicted from the point of view of those betrayed by their leaders.
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 brought down in a bitter collapse, Ishiguro’s novel constitutes a highly critical examination of the price of self-neglecting, 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 here is the character of Miss Kenton, who was employed at Darlington Hall to share with Stevens the task of overseeing the household’s large staff. The reader knows instantly that something important is happening when Miss Kenton, freshly arrived, brings some flowers into Stevens’s starkly naked pantry, a most private room reminiscent of Keiko’s room in APale View of Hills. In a fine demonstration of the novel’s irony, which hinges on Stevens’s tragic inability to see the world with other than the eyes of a “great” butler, Miss Kenton’s constant complaints about the faults of Stevens’s ailing father are revealed to spring from concern that the old man may be killing himself with work. This concern, never detected by Stevens himself, is contrasted with the uncaring view of his lord, who sees William only as a bother—an attitude Stevens also fails to detect.
Stevens’s utter failure to decipher Miss Kenton’s signals of affection for him bestows an exquisite sense of melancholy on The Remains of the Day. 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 that will take her home to her husband. Their fate is presented in a manner that is free of easy sentimentality, and it achieves tragic status with Stevens’s realization that his talents may very well have been wasted on Lord Darlington. Yet again, in a decision that echoes existential philosophy, Stevens decides to try to be a better butler to his new American employer and improve his skill in “bantering,” making conversation with light irony, which he hopes may bring some human warmth to Darlington Hall.
Ishiguro thus decides to give his most tragic character a ray of hope that may guide him—as similar rays of hope guide Etsuko, Ogata, and Ono—through the remains of a life that has been given over to the pursuit of a goal that led to human ruin for the pursuer. Like Etsuko, who finally confronts her lingering guilt over having uprooted her first daughter to escape a stifling marriage, and like the serene Ogata and Ono, who forgive the young for holding them responsible for their past, Stevens is able to look beyond the sadness of a life falsely sacrificed.
Ishiguro’s exploration of the inherent unreliability of memory gives The Unconsoled its surreal atmosphere. Acclaimed pianist Ryder flies into an unnamed Central European city to give a performance. Unfortunately, he has lost his schedule on the plane, and he cannot find anybody to give him a replacement. For the next three days—the time span of the novel—Ryder struggles not only to remember what exactly he is meant to do but also to distinguish reality from illusion in the alien city. In addition, he has to cope with his archrival Christoff, whom critics of the novel have called a musical fascist. This echoes Ishiguro’s lifelong fascination with right-wing ideologies and their effects on his characters.
Literary critics have been divided in their opinions about the chaotic narrative order of The Unconsoled. Even by the end of the novel it is not entirely clear what has been Ryder’s dream and what is reality. The novel has not been among Ishiguro’s most popular with readers.
When We Were Orphans
In his next novel, When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro employs much more conventional storytelling. On the eve of the 1937 Japanese attack on Shanghai, British detective Christopher Banks revisits the city, where his parents were abducted decades ago, leaving him a virtual orphan. As Banks tries to piece together clues from the past to find out the fate of his parents, his uncertain memory mars his investigation. He appears to be just one frustrating step behind solving the crime. Ishiguro uses Banks’s quest to revisit one of his recurring central topics, that of authoritarianism, by commenting on issues of British and Japanese imperialism in China.
As Banks is finally reunited with his mother after World War II, the novel closes on a theme of ambiguity. Desperate to believe that his mother loved him through all the years gone by, Banks persuades himself that this is a fact, despite some suggestion that it is an illusion.
Never Let Me Go
The protagonist of Never Let Me Go, a soft science fiction novel, is Kathy H., a thirty-year-old clone. Kathy echoes the quiet dignity with which Stevens assesses his fate in The Remains of the Day. In an alternate English society of the late 1990’s, a sinister government raises clones as eventual organ donors. The novel is not a medical thriller; rather, it is a deep character study and an allegory commenting on society’s misuse of some of its members.
The most striking feature of Never Let Me Go is the quietly detached narrative of Kathy. Through her memory, Ishiguro creates the apparently idyllic boarding school of Hailsham, where Kathy and her fellow clones are groomed for a fate hidden behind euphemistic language. The young adults are told they will become “donors” until they “complete”—that is, die—while “carers” like Kathy support them until it is the carers’ turn to become donors as well.
Ishiguro masterfully mixes the outrageous premises of his plot with the basic normalcy of Kathy and her friends. Kathy, for instance, yearns to never let go of a baby of hers, as does the woman singer of a fictitious pop melody she listens to at Hailsham. This is an impossible dream for Kathy, as all clones are infertile; the wish signifies both Kathy’s humanity and how inhumanely her society treats her.
Short fiction: “A Strange and Sometimes Sadness,” “Waiting for J,” and “Getting Poisoned,” in Introduction 7: Stories by New Writers, 1981; “A Family Supper,” in Firebird 2, 1983.
Screenplay: The White Countess, 2005.
Teleplays: A Profile of Arthur J. Mason, 1984; The Gourmet, 1986.
Lewis, Barry. Kazuo Ishiguro. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000.
Petry, Mike. Narratives of Memory and Identity: The Novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.
Shaffer, Brian W. Understanding Kazuo Ishiguro. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Shaffer, Brian W., and Cynthia Wong, eds. Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2008.
Sim, Wai-chew. Globalization and Dislocation in the Novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006.
Stanton, Katherine. “Foreign Feeling: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and theNewEurope.” In Cosmopolitan Fictions.NewYork: Routledge, 2006.
Wong, Cynthia. Kazuo Ishiguro. Tavistock, England: Northcote House, 2000.