Kazuo Ishiguro’s floating world
It is the inescapable reality of Kazuo Ishiguro’s name that readers and critics would want to see uniquely Japanese characteristics in his writing. But that would be seeing only part of his identity, for Ishiguro left Japan when still a child, at five, and moved to England, and it is England that honed his sensibility. The differences between the two countries are not as glaring as might seem to someone who takes a view of history shaped by World War II, and novels like J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun or the sinking of warships Prince of Wales and Repulse near Singapore. As Pico Iyer notes in the early parts of The Lady and the Monk, the two islands—England and Japan—have much in common, in terms of sensibilities, civilities, nuances, and a particularly deliberate manner of decorum and rituals.
So when Ishiguro came to England at five, he did not step into a culture as drastically alien as it might seem otherwise. A boy who grew up on comics and cowboys, who admired detectives, strummed a guitar and hitchhiked across the US West Coast, Ishiguro wanted to write songs first, and only accidentally came across an advertisement of a course in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, and sent in his application, and to his surprise, was accepted.
As James Wood noted in the New Yorker, he may well be the first novelist to win the Nobel Prize for literature to have learnt his craft at such a programme, in the company of others, making a conscious effort to sharpen his skills. He was lucky in having great mentors like Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter, and not surprisingly turned to Japan for his early inspiration.
The narrator of his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), is a middle-aged woman whose daughter has committed suicide. But signalling an early notice of the deliberate reserve that’s characteristic of his writing, Ishiguro does not let the narrator dwell on the circumstances leading to the suicide; rather, she remembers a friendship in Nagasaki soon after the war ended. (Ishiguro was born in 1954 in that town where the second atom bomb was dropped, and his mother, then a teenager, was the only one in her family to have been injured). And it is through that appropriated story, and the erasure of memory when something is too painful or inconvenient to recall, that Ishiguro tells the more difficult story.
Ishiguro dealt with Japan’s uncomfortable past in his 1986 novel, An Artist of the Floating World, in which the protagonist’s pro-militarist stance during the war haunts him. This idea, of the floating world, is uniquely Japanese, dating back to the Edo Period, beginning in the 17th century, and ending with the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century. In Ukiyo Monogatari (Tales of the Floating World), Asai Ryoi defines the floating world as: “Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world.” Ishiguro’s protagonist was steeped in the contentment of the present, immersed in the present moment and its timeless, existential lull, as though there is no reckoning to be had over the ast.
It is his third novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), which won the Booker Prize and which was made into a successful film, that Ishiguro is known most for. A fine novel that works at several levels—a commentary on the British class system at its most obvious, but also the coexistence of internal drama while momentous external events are shaping the world, and the suppression of emotion. To tell the story, Ishiguro brilliantly used that most unobtrusive of characters, the English butler, who makes a large house function smoothly and efficiently without being noticed. It was a novel so close to perfection that Ishiguro deliberately shifted to another direction, writing The Unconsoled (1995), about an aging, arrogant pianist in a Central European country, who is obsessed with performing to perfection to heal the scars of his parents’ separation.
With When We Were Orphans (2000), Ishiguro turned his attention to pre-war Shanghai, where his grandfather lived and his father was born, writing an unlikely detective story. Ishiguro has long admired Sherlock Holmes and said in an interview with the Paris Review how he sees similarities between the English detective and the English butler. “Cerebral rather than devoted to duty, but locked into a professional persona. Emotionally distant. Like the musician in The Unconsoled, there’s something in his personal world that is broken,” he said in that interview. His detective wanted to solve a mystery and somehow stop the imminent war. Ishiguro said he was attempting “to write about that part of ourselves that always sees things as we did as children”.
The dystopic Never Let Me Go (2005) is set in another quintessential British institution, the boarding school. Written in a dry tone, it seems like an ordinary story about students until we realise that the students are clones, who are ‘created’ so that their organs can be harvested for ordinary people, and they don’t die; rather, their lives are ‘completed’ while in their 20s. They are ‘called up,’ or they die, because they’ve performed the tasks they were meant to perform—of possessing perfect replacements of body parts for imperfect humans. The quiet resignation with which Kathy, the narrator, accepts what is to happen may seem fatalistic in its eastern sense, or seen as a very English trait, of being stoic and why one ‘mustn’t grumble’—you play the game by the rules that are set; you stand in the queue and don’t disrupt order. The children live short lives, in service of others, but those are full lives.
Ishiguro’s protagonists are observers—they look at the world around, realise their powerlessness to change it, and accept that what is good is not within one’s grasp. Like the detective, they try to solve mysteries. Like the bereaved, they borrow others’ experiences to make sense of their own. Like those escaping a past, they try to immerse themselves in the present to protect themselves. Like butlers, they play their appointed role, their success usually unacknowledged. And like the cloned children, they live out their lives faster, more aware, at a heightened level of sensibility.
Recounting Plato’s dialogues, Ishiguro said that idealistic people often become misanthropic when they are let down two or three times. “Plato suggests it can be like that with the search for the meaning of the good. You shouldn’t get disillusioned when you get knocked back. All you’ve discovered is that the search is difficult, and you still have a duty to keep on searching,” he said.
As has Ishiguro. The meaning of life may still remain elusive, but the discoveries he has made are profound.