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Kazuo Ishiguro: Time Out of Mind

An overview of Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels.

By 6 min read

The bun fight over his nationality aside — Japanese, Japanese British, Japanese English, English Japanese, British Japanese or just British depending on which news outlet you frequent — Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel win is a well-deserved one. It’s also a great boost for those of us disappointed by the category error that led to Bob Dylan being awarded the prize last year in a field from which he has been largely absent.

Kazuo ishiguro

Don’t misunderstand me: I love Dylan. His lyrics are sublime and witty and among the best penned by any singer-songwriter out there. But literature isn’t a synonym for anything that involves being creative with language. Moreover, lyrics detached from their musical context are denuded. My issue with Dylan’s win is that it reduces his musical output to mere accompaniment.

Lyrics are to the voice what riffs are to a guitar: the phrasing through which musicality is expressed. Describing Dylan’s lyrics as literature — a form of writing in which words are presented with nothing but the frame of an empty page or silence (for literature grew from oral performance) — or as poetry, is to elevate the words of a song to a place of importance far exceeding the music. To praise the lyrics in this way is to denigrate the importance of the music. And this is my issue. The voice — and consequently the lyrics — is just one instrument among equals. The lyrics cannot be detached from the song and treated in isolation, any more than you can meaningfully examine the use of the snare over a drummer’s career. But this is what the Nobel committee did by awarding him the prize — they implied that his music was of secondary importance.

Songwriting isn’t a subset of literature, inferior to it. Yet this is the conclusion many of those who supported Dylan’s win are promoting. They are saying that Dylan’s lyrics are so good it raises his output from “mere songwriting” — entertainment in other words — to “literature” — a serious and laudable activity. Those who support Dylan’s win are, in my opinion, guilty of insulting the great art of songwriting.

So when Ishiguro’s win was announced last week, I was overjoyed. No category error here. Ishiguro does literature and he does it very, very well.

A Pale View of Hills

Over a career that spans seven novels (not to mention short fiction, screenplays and a variety of other forms), Ishiguro has done what is required of a practitioner of literature. He has told captivating stories and brought to life beguiling characters. He has explored what it means to be human, what it means to move through society and the baffling network of relationships that constitute a life. He has also explored the grain and edges of memory, delving into the atoms from which an identity is crafted. In fact, his body of work can be seen as an increasingly sophisticated exploration of how we — the consciousness of the present — use and abuse memory to build the narratives that allow us to function and survive. Each work can, in turn, also be seen as a step away from the beginning of his own personal narrative in Nagasaki in 1954.

He began with A Pale View of Hills (1982), the story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in England. It explores — with a sensitivity and awareness that perhaps came from Ishiguro’s own experiences as a Japanese boy growing up in England (his family moved there when he was five) — the isolation and alienation that led to Etsuko’s elder daughter’s suicide (no spoiler here, it’s flagged very early in the book). Etsuko, trying to communicate with her other daughter, Niki, tells her the story of Sachiko, a friend whose story is uncannily similar to Etsuko’s — Ishiguro’s first foray into false memory and the games we play with our own biographies.

Japanese, Japanese British, Japanese English, English Japanese, British Japanese or just British depending on which news outlet you frequent — Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel win is a well-deserved one.

Next, An Artist of the Floating World (1986) draws the reader into a confusing and contradictory post-war Japan where Ono, an aging painter who spent the war producing nationalist propaganda, is forced to come to terms with his own complicity in the war. Ishiguro’s style — highly focused, first-person narrative — locks us into the vortex of a mind trying to, in effect, rewrite his own personal narrative in a way that makes sense to him but also to his children and the new pacifist Japan.

The remains of the Day

His third novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), leaves Japan behind altogether and takes up residence in an English country house. The war is still present, as is the theme of complicity, this time in the shape of Lord Darlington, a Nazi sympathizer. However the tale is told via the perspective of Stevens, the butler, who is going through a similar process as Ono, editing and redrafting his own experiences with the benefit of hindsight.

The Unconsoled (1995) is often — and wrongly — seen as a misstep by critics and was certainly something of a new direction for Ishiguro, at least in scope and length. The novel covers only three days but does so across nearly 500 pages, but at its heart is another exploration of memory. This time the protagonist is Ryder, a concert pianist whose short-term memory is failing him. Unlike in his earlier books, where memory is painful but treated at a distance, here memory is an enemy to be fought and tamed — or by which we can be defeated.

With When We Were Orphans (2000), Ishiguro showed that the shift in form heralded by The Unconsoled was part of an intentional project. Returning in part to a Japanese setting, incorporating the Japanese invasion of mainland China in the 1930s, specifically the battles around Shanghai. Memory is also at the center, as main character Christopher searches for his long-missing parents. Ishiguro borrows from the detective genre (Christopher is a private investigator in England) to give his now familiar themes a new vitality, although occasionally the match isn’t a perfect one.

Never Let Me Go

Ishiguro again drew other genre’s elements into his next novel, the hugely successful Never Let Me Go (2005). Here, we are in an England of social awkwardness and repressed private school upbringings, but in a near-future England where clones are bred to provide organs in the event that the “original” needs a transplant. The speculative setting is a great boost to Ishiguro’s exploration of memory. As in When We Were Orphans, it has adults looking back on a formative childhood and recasting events and experiences through the prism of distance and wisdom, which is a boon that allows him imaginative scope to push the boundaries of his ongoing quest to map the hinterlands where memory forms identity.

It was so successful, in fact, that he did the same thing with The Buried Giant (2015), only this time fusing fantasy elements with Arthurian myth to create a medieval England beset with amnesia. It’s a subtle, emotional book that seems to finally accept that perhaps memory is a malignant influence on our lives — in the character’s amnesiac state, personal relationships and national unity are possible. When memory begins to return, bonds are severed and peace threatened.

Ishiguro is reportedly at work on his next novel and it will be interesting to see where he will turn next and whether the appropriation of genres will continue apace (whither next? Romance, horror, erotica?) and how his thinking about memory and identity has developed. One thing is for sure: his argument won’t be “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

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