Ishiguro’s Orphans

By Robert CreminsFebruary 4, 2018

Ishiguro’s Orphans
WHEN I STARTED my MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in the fall of 1990, Kazuo Ishiguro had graduated from the program a decade earlier, but his presence was like the truth in his novels — invisible and persistent. The previous year his third novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), had won the Booker Prize. In workshop, Malcolm Bradbury told us the genesis story of Ishiguro’s fiction (or a version of it): how his initial submissions had featured a familiar British reality, and how it had taken half the first semester for the class to get him to pay notice to his name (Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved to Britain with his family when he was five). That fall was the 20th anniversary of the course, co-founded by Bradbury and fellow novelist Angus Wilson. At a weekend of readings and festivities, one alumnus introduced herself to a classmate of mine by stating her name and adding simply, “Ishiguro’s year.”

2017 was once again Ishiguro’s year. On October 5, the Swedish Academy announced that “English author Kazuo Ishiguro” had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The citation, in its trademark italics, lauded him for “novels of great emotional force,” in which Ishiguro “has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” That is, I think, an eloquent and useful description of Ishiguro’s inimitable fictions. But it’s incomplete. Those novels also have a sturdy connection with the world. Ishiguro possesses an acute sense of the political and historical forces at work in the lives of his deluded narrators, forces with which they often conspire. Subsequently, these bit players in history retreat from the real — and, by means of fantasy and forgetting, help dig that abyss.

For more than 30 years, Ishiguro’s work has taken a quiet, clear-eyed stand against extremism and intolerance. His first three novels form a loose “shadow of fascism” trilogy. Another destructive shadow hangs over his 1982 debut, A Pale View of Hills, which flits between contemporary England and the city of Ishiguro’s birth, “Nagasaki, after what had gone before.” What had gone before was, of course, the Bomb. It’s apt, therefore, that Ishiguro became the Nobel laureate in a year when vintage evils that we thought — or fooled ourselves into believing — that we had left behind in the 20th century, such as Nazis and the threat of nuclear war, came stomping back into view.

Now we are on guard against any of this becoming normalized. That need for vigilance, I’d argue, makes some of Ishiguro’s work required reading. His novels are often cautionary tales of normalization. As Etsuko, the narrator of that first novel, warns us, “it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.” It’s a lesson borne out by her sister-in-suffering, Ruth, part of the love triangle at the heart of Never Let Me Go (2005), another novel set in a deceptively tranquil England. Ruth’s upbringing — and that of her intimates, Tommy and narrator Kathy — gives us a chilling new sense of the phrase “formative years”: these twentysomethings are clones; their education has inoculated them against the horror of their raison d’être: they are the human equivalent of Kobe cows — relatively pampered and designed for doom. In their prime, with clinical savagery, the trio’s organs will be harvested to prolong the lives of ailing “normals.” Ruth’s acceptance of this fate has a terrifying carapace of rationality:

I think I was a pretty decent carer. But five years felt about enough for me. I was like you, Tommy. I was pretty much ready when I became a donor. It felt right. After all, it’s what we’re supposed to be doing, isn’t it?

A Pale View of Hills is also concerned with the costs of an education deficient in critical thinking. Etsuko’s father-in-law, Ogata-San, was a prominent teacher and proselytizer for the imperialist cause. Now in restless retirement, he is preoccupied with a denunciation of himself and an ally that he has come across in a professional journal. The article’s author is Shigeo Matsuda, a former protégé and childhood friend of Etsuko’s husband. In a deftly turned scene, Ogata-San has a most courteous confrontation with Shigeo, from which he receives no satisfaction. At last, the verbal gloves come off, and the old teacher gets a lecture to remember:

In your day, children in Japan were taught terrible things. They were taught lies of the most damaging kind. Worst of all, they were taught not to see, not to question. And that’s why the country was plunged into the most evil disaster in her entire history. 

Ogata-San is the pivot between Pale View and Ishiguro’s second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986). Here an Ogata-San-like character, complicit in the imperial regime, takes center stage. In the case of Masuji Ono, not seeing and not questioning are acute failures, given his vocation as a serious painter. In his admission early in the book that “I have never had a keen awareness of my own standing,” he speaks more truth than he knows, or is willing to admit. What he has lacked in spine he has made up for in ego.

Living in an unnamed Japanese postwar city, another uncomfortable retiree, Ono, goes through a tortuous self-assessment. In the end, we get a sense that, more than anyone else, Ono, author of no “grand catastrophe,” has betrayed himself, betrayed his talent. Intoxicated with “the new patriotic spirit” of the 1930s, Ono broke his implicit vow to dedicate his working life to capturing “fragile beauty” on canvas and produced crass propaganda posters instead. In a silent storm of a paragraph, Ishiguro brings together Ono’s moral failings and his squandered eye. He has literally turned his back on a former student, Shintaro, whose hopes for a teaching post under the new dispensation appear to depend upon Ono writing a curious letter of recommendation, one that will claim that Shintaro did not share his master’s enthusiasm for Japanese expansionism:

I went on gazing at my garden. For all its steady fall, the snow had settled only very lightly on the shrubs and branches. Indeed, as I watched, a breeze shook a branch of the maple tree, shaking off most of the snow. Only the stone lantern at the back of the garden had a substantial cap of white on it.

Moments like this are when the Japanese sensibility of this “English author” is apparently at its most pronounced. It’s a quality found in the music of Toru Takemitsu, another artist whose work is an intricate synthesis of East and West. Writing about the composer in the Guardian back in 2013, Tom Service related this aesthetic to “the Japanese word ‘ma,’ which suggests the concept of a void that isn’t empty, an absence that is really a presence, a space between things that is full of energy.”

Ishiguro himself is passionate about music, particularly Americana, as the account he gave during his Nobel Lecture about the influence of a Tom Waits song on the emotional dynamics of The Remains of the Day testifies. Back in 2002, playing the role of the “castaway” on that wistful British institution, the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs, Ishiguro chose a wide range of records, everything from an Emmylou Harris ballad to a Chopin nocturne. The latter music he picked for its “quiet, introspective surface, but with very strong emotions underneath,” a description that the alert host, Sue Lawley, related back to her guest’s novels. In response, Ishiguro not only agreed but also cited other examples of work he admires that maintains the same tension: the short stories of Anton Chekhov and the films of Yasujirō Ozu. In Ishiguro’s work, East blends with West; indeed, the two become inseparable.

His tip of the hat toward Ozu, however, is particularly relevant to Ishiguro’s first two novels. Ozu’s canonical Tokyo Story (1953) dramatizes the same post-1945 milieu — a rapidly recovering, and rapidly forgetting, Japan; we are 40 minutes into the film before someone directly references the war. The hallmark of this unapologetically human-scale movie is, in the words of critic David Bordwell, Ozu’s “compassionate detachment,” a phrase that also serves as a good measure of Ishiguro’s distance from his characters.

The most prominent of these is Stevens, the pitiful, culpable butler from The Remains of the Day. Returning to the novel after Anthony Hopkins’s masterful big-screen portrayal of the character, and years of small-screen mansion-house shenanigans on Downton Abbey, one is struck by what a political book it is, with its allegorical suggestiveness about the ordinary citizen’s relationship to power. The novel has a lot to say not only about the pre- and postwar Britain in which the story is set, and the Thatcher-Reagan 1980s in which it was written, but also about our present global moment. “Democracy is something for a bygone era,” declares Lord Darlington, Stevens’s fascist-infatuated employer. “The world’s too complicated a place now for universal suffrage and such like.”

Stevens, in all senses of the word, caters to Darlington’s political meddling. He’s reminiscent of J. Alfred Prufrock: “an easy tool, / Deferential, glad to be of use…” and indeed thinks of himself as the kind of Polonius figure Eliot’s poem evokes: “It’s a great privilege, after all,” Stevens says, “to have been given a part to play, however small, on the world’s stage.” In reality, he has, like Ono, exaggerated his role in worldly affairs. He was Polonius’s valet, Prufrock’s stooge. Of course, a minor participant in a “grand catastrophe” is still a participant. Stevens is on the wrong side of history by one of the country miles he travels on during the motoring trip that frames the story.

The Remains of the Day is one of several novels in which Ishiguro makes a subtle rhetorical move: the presumptive “you.” Just as Kathy assumes her readers are fellow victims and Ono assumes our familiarity with his city, Stevens thinks we are as willing to be duped as he was. It’s an unsettling gesture, but by no means Ishiguro’s most radical strategy. With Stevens, Ishiguro perfected his demonstration of the unreliable narrator, so much so that in his smart, accessible 1992 book The Art of Fiction, critic and fellow novelist David Lodge used The Remains of the Day as his model of excellence in explaining that technique. In that essay, Lodge makes the perfectly sensible argument that

a character-narrator cannot be a hundred per cent unreliable. If everything he or she says is palpably false, that only tells us what we know already, namely that a novel is a work of fiction. There must be some possibility of discriminating between truth and falsehood within the imagined world of the novel, as there is in the real world, for the story to engage our interest.

Three years later, Ishiguro published a monster of a novel, The Unconsoled (1995), which reads like a defiance of Lodge’s artistic logic. Is Ryder, the internationally renowned pianist meandering through a provincial city in Mitteleuropa, 100 percent unreliable? No, but maybe 90 percent. We never sound out the floor of “reality” in this fiction. Even the city, with “utterly preposterous obstacles everywhere,” seems to have been designed by a committee of surrealists. The normally solid elements of narrative — point of view, character, time itself — turn to jelly. It’s as if we have come across the implosion of a more conventional novel, the kind of novel that Ishiguro himself had written back in the 1980s. For that reason, Ishiguro fans tend to think of The Unconsoled as either the black hole or dark star at the center of his oeuvre.

I’m in the latter camp. Yes, the novel breaks Lodge’s law, but there’s ample compensation for that. What we get from The Unconsoled is not so much a story as an experience, one that uncannily replicates Ryder’s own lucid dream of a city sojourn. When he has a “vague recollection,” so do we. When he is lost, so are we. The length of the book is not an indulgence but an essence. Finishing it, we have been homeless for days, and our next stop is Helsinki. No truer word is spoken when one of the city dignitaries remarks, a 100 pages in, “[I]t’s so difficult to see in this light.” Indeed it is. The apotheosis of the unreliable narrator has given birth to the unreliable reader.

For all its defiant oddness, The Unconsoled is still decidedly an Ishiguro novel; you can see the watermark of his persistent concerns. A monument to a figure named Max Sattler suggests that the city has a fascistic past. Moreover, demagogic control seems dangerously close at hand. At one point, Ryder observes an alternative self, a conductor named Brodsky: “Something about him suggested a strange authority over the very emotions which had just been running riot in front of him — that he could cause them to rise and fall as he pleased.”

This concern about how the political atmosphere can revert to the past is at the forefront of Ishiguro’s most recent book, The Buried Giant (2015). The novel is his most historically distant fiction, set all the way back in a post-Roman Britain that is a foggy combination of chronicle and myth; it’s a landscape populated by ogres and dragons as well as Saxons and Britons. But Ishiguro was prompted to write the book by the much more recent killing fields of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. “Who knows,” frets Axl, the elderly hero, “what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”

In that question I hear a reversal of the lines, made famous during the peace process in Northern Ireland, from The Cure at Troy (1991), Seamus Heaney’s adaptation of Sophocles’s Philoctetes: “once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.” Both poetry and peace, of course, require patience and the delicate use of language. Damage and rancor can happen in the blink of an eye — or a tweet.

A dragon of a different kind, “the Great Opium Dragon,” stalks early 20th-century China in Ishiguro’s 2000 novel When We Were Orphans. Of all his books, Orphans best exemplifies the point I made earlier — that there is such a gulf between Ishiguro’s heroes and the world because they’ve had a bad tangle with that world. Here Ishiguro makes inspired use of his own cultural duality. The foundation of the book is the relationship, in Shanghai’s International Settlement, between narrator Christopher Banks and his childhood friend Akira, a Japanese boy who fears he is not Japanese enough. Shipped “home” after the disappearance of his parents, Christopher tries to allay his own cultural anxieties by wearing the houndstooth costume of that very British role, the consulting detective.

Investigation, “the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms,” is more of a coping mechanism than a vocation for Christopher. Real evil in the novel does not take the form of the butler in the study with the candlestick. Its scale is industrial, not domestic (though it may be familiar): “the British in general, and [my father’s company] especially, by importing Indian opium into China in such massive quantities had brought untold misery and degradation to a whole nation.” When Christopher returns to Shanghai in 1937 to investigate the persistent mystery of his parents’ fate, another industrial evil looms on the horizon: the Japanese imperial war machine. It’s the dawn of the “grand catastrophe.”

When We Were Orphans, in other words, is set in a world, less than 20 years removed from “the war to end all wars,” on the verge of repeating the folly of the past. It’s a time for vigilance and prudence. “Tensions continue to mount,” Christopher notes; “knowledgeable people liken our civilisation to a haystack at which lighted matches are being hurled.” That passive verb gives the scenario a portability: fresh hay, new hurlers.

In the course of his myopic investigations, Christopher meets many of his kind, justifying the plural of the title. Ishiguro is performing one of his favorite maneuvers, a device he has used to devastating effect as far back as A Pale View of Hills: the collapse of characters into each other. Somewhere along the way, the reader may fall in there, too. When were we orphans? Then. Now.


Robert Cremins is a novelist who teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. In 2015, he conducted an onstage interview with Kazuo Ishiguro as part of an Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series event at Houston’s Wortham Center.

LARB Contributor

Robert Cremins is the author of the novels A Sort of Homecoming and Send in the Devils. Recent fiction has appeared in The Dublin Review. He teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.


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