BORN: 1954, Nagasaki, Japan
NATIONALITY: Japanese, English
A Pale View of Hills (1982)
An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
The Remains of the Day (1989)
The Unconsoled (1995)
Never Let Me Go (2005)
Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro, Kazuo, photograph. AP images.
Kazuo Ishiguro is best known for his third novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), which won the Booker Prize, one of England’s most prestigious literary awards. The language and tone of Ishiguro’s novels are controlled, delicate, and formal. His protagonists often deceive themselves about the lives they have lived and the choices they have made. Ishiguro’s novels are emotional journeys whereby these characters search for the truth and meaning of their lives. In the end, some characters continue to exist with their delusions, while others feel the pain of understanding that they have lived their lives poorly.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Leaving Japan. Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, on November 8, 1954. Just over a decade earlier, in 1945, Nagasaki was one of two cities nearly destroyed by U.S. atomic bomb attacks during World War II; it is estimated that upwards of eighty thousand people were killed as a result of the attack on Nagasaki. Ishiguro would consider the aftermath of this attack in his novel An Artist of the Floating World. Ishiguro moved with his parents to Guilford, Surrey, England, in 1960, where his father, an oceanographer, was to be temporarily employed by the British government. Though the family left with the expectation of returning to Japan after a year or two, the assignment was repeatedly renewed, until they found themselves settled in England permanently.
‘‘Services to Literature”. Ishiguro was educated at the Woking County Grammar School for Boys in Surrey, then studied American literature at the University of Kent, earning an honors degree in English and philosophy in 1978. He found employment as a social worker, first in Glasgow, Scotland, and, after graduating from Kent, in London. While working in London, Ishiguro pursued an interest in fiction by enrolling in the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, where he received a master of arts degree in 1980.
A Fading Memory. Ishiguro has said that his initial interest in writing fiction was as a way of preserving memories of Japan that were beginning to fade, and he attributes his meteoric rise, in part, to his Japanese name and the Japanese subject matter in his first two novels: A Pale View of the Hills and An Artist of the Floating World. His first novel was published a year after Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won the 1981 Booker Prize, and, as Ishiguro recalled in a 1991 Mississippi Review interview, ‘‘everyone was suddenly looking for other Rushdies.’’ Ishiguro later took pains to battle the assumption that he only had interest in Japan-related fiction.
International Success. Ishiguro’s greatest success came with a novel about distinctly British characters. The Remains of the Day centers on the life of a loyal English butler who recalls his years of service in diary form. The novel was adapted for screen in an acclaimed 1993 film of the same name.
Ishiguro followed up his success with When We Were Orphans, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. His 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, a dystopia novel with science fiction elements, also captured wide critical acclaim. He lives and works in London.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Ishiguro's famous contemporaries include:
Mo Yan (1955—): Chinese novelist whose work is often banned by the Chinese government.
Tobias Wolff (1945—): American memoirist and novelist, most famous for the book This Boy's Life.
J. M. Coetzee (1940—): South African novelist whose works often address the serious problems facing South Africa in the postapartheid era.
Tony Blair (1953—): Former prime minister of the United Kingdom and an important ally of the United States in the years following the September 11, 2001, attack.
Hayao Miyazaki (1941—): Japanese animator and director responsible for many popular animated films, including Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Ishiguro is one of many authors who have employed unreliable narrators to great effect. Here are a few examples of texts written with unreliable narrators:
House of Leaves (2000), a novel by Mark Z. Danielewski. This novel contains a number of narrators, including a blind man who describes the visual details of a film, thereby undercutting any authority he otherwise would have had as a narrator.
Rashomon (1950), a film directed by Akira Kurosawa. In this film, four different characters all relate their versions of a tragic meeting in a grove between a bandit and a samurai and his wife. The samurai's testimony is offered through a medium, since he was killed, and the fourth witness—a woodcutter—openly admits to being untruthful in his first account.
Lolita (1955), a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. This story is told from the point of view of a pedophile, who claims that his victim seduced him.
The Sound and the Fury (1929), a novel by William Faulkner. This tale of a family in crisis is told from the point of view of a mentally disabled person, allowing all sorts of convolutions of the truth that require the reader to work harder to discover what actually happened to the family in question.
Works in Literary Context
The Unreliable Narrator. A consistent element in Ishiguro’s first four novels is his fascination with narrative unreliability, which he takes considerably beyond the familiar techniques of writers such as Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, where the narrators’ account of events can be trusted, if not their interpretations or explanations of those events. In his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, for example, Ishiguro’s narrator fabricates not only motives but also actions and even characters.
In his later fiction, Ishiguro’s challenge is to surprise the reader with some unanticipated permutation of unreliability, which he achieves through multiple levels of complexity. In An Artist of the Floating World, the narrator’s unreliability seems to involve his initial denial of wrongdoing in prewar Japan, and only after he has recalled and accepted responsibility for those increasingly reprehensible activities does the reader grasp that the activities themselves never took place. In The Remains of the Day, this greater level of complication is achieved through the narrator’s memories of two involvements, one a reluctantly revealed romantic relationship and the other an even more guarded political venture, which both transpired at Darlington Hall over the same fourteen- year period. And in The Unconsoled, Ishiguro subverts even physical laws by expanding the realm of unreliability from the past to the present in order to make the external world a projection of the narrator’s contorted psychology.
Works in Critical Context
Each of Ishiguro’s novels has met with critical acclaim, and several have won prestigious awards: A Pale View of Hills won the Winifred Holtby Award from the Royal Society of Literature in 1983; An Artist of the Floating World won the Whitbread Literary Award in 1986; and The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize. Critics have praised Ishiguro’s elegant and precise use of language and his controlled style of storytelling.
A Pale View of Hills. Reviewing A Pale View of Hills in the Spectator, Francis King found the novel “typically Japanese in its compression, its reticence and in its exclusion of all details not absolutely essential to its theme.’’ While some reviewers agreed with Times Literary Supplement writer Paul Bailey—who stated “that at certain points I could have done with something as crude as a fact’’—many felt that Ishiguro’s delicate layering of themes and images grants the narrative great evocative power. “[It] is a beautiful and dense novel, gliding from level to level of consciousness,’’ remarked Jonathan Spence, in New Society. ‘‘Ishiguro develops [his themes] with remarkable insight and skill,’’ concurred Rosemary Roberts in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. “They are described in controlled prose that more often hints than explains or tells. The effect evokes mystery and an aura of menace.’’ And King deemed the novel “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.’’ Roberts also complimented the author’s optimistic approach to the material: ‘‘There is nobility in determination to press on with life even against daunting odds. Ishiguro has brilliantly captured this phoenixlike spirit; high praise to him.’’
The Remains of the Day. The Remains of the Day met with highly favorable critical response. Galen Strawson, for example, praised the novel in the Times Literary Supplement. “ "The Remains of the Day is as strong as it is delicate, a very finely nuanced and at times humorous study of repression.’’ Strawson also states, “It is a strikingly original book, and beautifully made ... Stevens’ ... language creates a context which allows Kazuo Ishiguro to put a massive charge of pathos into a single unremarkable phrase.’’ In the Chicago Tribune, Joseph Coates described the novel as “an ineffably sad and beautiful piece of work—a tragedy in the form of a comedy of manners.’’ He continued: “Rarely has the device of an unreliable narrator worked such character revelation as it does here.’’ Mark Kamine cited Ishiguro’s technique in the New Leader. “Usually the butler’s feelings are hidden in painfully correct periphrasis, or refracted in dialogue spoken by other characters.... Few writers dare to say so little of what they mean as Ishiguro.’’ While many reviews of The Remains of the Day were favorable, this was not universally so. Writing for the New Statesman, Geoff Dyer wondered ‘‘if the whole idea of irony as a narrative strategy hasn’t lost its usefulness.’’ Dyer worried that Stevens’ voice had been “coaxed in the interests of the larger ironic scheme of the novel.’’ Comparing the novelist to Henry James, however, Hermione Lee defended Ishiguro’s style in New Republic: “To accuse Ishiguro of costive, elegant minimalism is to miss the deep sadness, the boundless melancholy that opens out, like the ‘deserts of vast eternity’ his characters are reluctantly contemplating, under the immaculate surface.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Read Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Each text uses an unreliable narrator but in very different ways. In a short essay, describe how each narrator is unreliable and evaluate the purpose of this unreliability for each novel. Then briefly evaluate the effectiveness of each text.
2. Read A Pale View of Hills, which concerns the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki. Then, using the Internet and the library, research the historical events surrounding the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. Based on your research, how well do you think Ishiguro portrays the aftermath of this important historical event?
3. Much of what Ishiguro does in his writing is try to reconstruct Japan based on his memories of it from when he was no older than six. Try to reconstruct some place you visited as a child, providing as many descriptive details as you can.
4. Ishiguro describes how he thinks his works are viewed differently because he has a ‘‘Japanese name’’ and a ‘‘Japanese face.’’ Read A Pale View of Hills. How do you think your response would be different to this text if Ishiguro did not have a Japanese name or a Japanese face? Do you think any novel depicting a culture is inherently less genuine if it is created by someone from outside the culture? Why or why not?
Shaffer, Brian W. Understanding Kazuo Ishiguro. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Gurewich, David. ‘‘Upstairs, Downstairs.’’ New Criterion (1989).
Jaggi, Maya. ‘‘A Buttoned-Up Writer Breaks Loose.’’ Guardian (April 29, 1995).
Mason, Gregory. ‘‘An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro.’’ Contemporary Literature (1989).
O’Brien, Susie. ‘‘Serving a New World Order: Postcolonial Politics in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.’’ Modern Fiction Studies (1996).
Oe, Kenzaburo. ‘‘Wave Patterns: A Dialogue.’’ Grand Street (1991).
Rothfork, John. ‘‘Zen Comedy in Postcolonial Literature: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.’’ Mosaic (December 2001).
Wall, Kathleen. ‘‘The Remains of the Day and Its Challenges to Theories of Unreliable Narration.'' Journal of Narrative Technique (1994).