Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 5 · Summer 1996: pgs 137-142.
Have you ever met an artist whose most prominent gift is as a ponderer? Kazuo Ishiguro, the author noted mostly for writing Remains of the Day (1989), is an observer and a contemplator. He deliberates over life's issues and remotely watches people interact. That is what makes his fiction so insightful and intriguing, including his most recent novel, The Unconsoled (1995).
In many ways Ishiguro's distant attitude toward people reflects his conclusions about them. His stories are about men and women who often watch life and opportunities for personal connection go by, never acting on what constitutes the essence of life. Ishiguro says he is "interested in people who consider their lives a failure." Yet this bold observation is a tricky one, because it requires Ishiguro to make decisions about what life is and what makes it worth living. He employs in his art universal themes with which readers can easily identify, but he also suggests an elevated standard or purpose for living. As Ishiguro makes his observations concerning his characters and how they operate in their given situations, it becomes clear that he formulates these opinions partly from his own personal history.
Ishiguro was born in Japan in 1954. His family moved to England when he was five years old, with the intention of moving back in a few years. With this in mind, Kazuo's parents taught him to prepare for the day when he would return to live in the Japanese culture. Thus he was raised on the fence of two worlds-which, as it turned out, were more similar than one initially might think. Perhaps inevitably, Kazuo grew up viewing others from somewhat of an outsider's perspective. This was a natural impetus for him to think more globally about the comprehensive qualities of people. Yet although his upbringing made him able to understand a wide range of people, Ishiguro never felt he was part of either culture.
His family had settled in England partly because of the freedoms they were able to enjoy as foreigners. They did not have to meet as many cultural expectations as they did back home. Thus Ishiguro's ideas about Japan come from the English culture and from his parents. In fact, he did not go back to visit his birthplace until after the completion of his first two books, both of which had Japanese themes. Ishiguro had thought his writing would be less inhibited if he fabricated his stories by relying on his impressions of Japan, rather than adhering to facts about the country.
Ishiguro started writing only when his other dreams-such as that of being a musician-diminished. Nevertheless, he used his background in music to establish a framework to flesh out the scattered environment of The Uncon-soled, a novel centering on a pianist. This setting is different from those of his earlier works, which allow the reader to see his ideas about people spanning many venues. Earlier in his career, Ishiguro was employed in a social service environment, where he did a lot of observing and listening to people in pain. All his writings share similar themes-what people profoundly yearn for, and how they actually deal with the chaos of day-to-day events that go against those yearnings. His first two books, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), are about the Japan he imagined and the concerns of people who live with tragedy. (The first book investigates the subject of personal loss; the second is about a life lived in support of the wrong political cause.) These works began a progression of thought Ishiguro seems to be developing in his work about the nature of people.
Ishiguro's unique background sensitized him to contemplate the broader cultures and belief systems of people. Both the English and the Japanese have a reserved manner, which is descriptive of Ishiguro's writing style. Not surprisingly, his characters tend to take on the more demure aspects of the Japanese-English mix of cultures. They are extremely polite, suppress their emotions, are inexplicit, and remain loyal to a fault. They are very careful to fit into the mainstream, and they place a great deal of importance on honor. They tend to draw the reader into the literature, as opposed to confronting us with it.
In contrast, Ishiguro likes some of the freer aspects of Americans. They are more demonstrative and passionate about their likes and dislikes, which he sometimes sees as refreshing. He says Americans also need to see things, rather than merely be told about them. Ishiguro utilizes an English butler, Stevens, in his third novel, The Remains of the Day, to pinpoint the advantages and disadvantages of a reserved nature. Ishiguro wanted to investigate the extent to which being less verbal was productive as opposed to cowardly and destructive. Stevens is endlessly demure and professional, trying to keep order in the house of his employment so that the master is never disturbed by them. Yet his efforts to be unnoticed overflow into his personal life, producing an invisible man with an empty heart.
Ishiguro uses a straightforward American congressman in the story to contrast the two cultures. The diplomat has come as the new householder in place of Stevens' previous English master, who had disgraced England by supporting the Nazi party. Stevens is equally loyal to the American, even though he and the English master had been on opposing sides in the Nazi matter. Stevens claims not to have a conviction about either side of such serious and influential issues, yet he maintains rigid standards about much smaller life concerns. He surrounds his life with order, controlling every relationship and sometimes ignoring what actually goes on around him. He passively supports the wrong moral cause and fails to pursue personal relationships because of the risks involved. As Ishiguro has stated, "(Stevens) focused too much on his own little bit of his job, and offered it to somebody upstairs [his master], hoping that he would use it in some way so that everything would be okay. In effect, Stevens forfeited his identity to another, actually trapping himself in what he saw as the security of his role in work and life. Subtle paradoxes such as these occur throughout the novel.
Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of Hills, also uses the West as a freeing element-in this case, to escape the pressures of life. Trying to forget the tragedies of Nagasaki, the two main characters go to the West in hopes of starting life over. Etsuko leaves her Japanese husband and marries an English journalist-an action that later may have contributed to the suicide of her daughter. Sachiko, a war widow, attaches herself to an American lover who promises to take her to the United States. Sachiko's actions further trouble her daughter, Mariko, who is already suffering from trauma and a lack of stability. The characters' choices and the results of them reflect a common theme in Ishiguro's novels-that of westerners as lacking a sense of depth, history, or continuity.
Ishiguro admits in interviews that the dilemmas of his main characters often are a reflection of his own struggles. He knows that many things are out of control in life, and yet he swings back and forth between the extremes of how much control one should have, what one should be responsible for, and when one should give up what little control he thinks he has. The butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day reflects Ishiguro's own ruminations, frustrations, and lack of clarity, purpose, and meaningful conclusions.
A close reading of each book reveals a furthering of thought set forth in the previous book. Whereas all of Ishiguro's books address the subject of control, the first three emphasized more the taking of wrong turns along a path. Ishiguro's underlying assumption is that every person has an agenda to live out, and his stories are about how those agendas were not accomplished. With the publication of The Unconsoled, Ishiguro says he does not see life as simply as before, adding that life has become more of a blur. The new novel is about the ways in which life is more like a forest that has many possible choices at any given moment, as opposed to a certain determined path in life that is to be followed. Therefore, the notion of making correct or incorrect choices is less defined and harder to assume.
In Ishiguro's opinion, The Unconsoled is the most substantial book he has taken on, in terms of content and size. It includes all his previous themes of feeling out of control, but this time adds the anxiety of an important, impending performance (by the main character, the famous pianist Ryder, for which he is unprepared). This topic was appropriate for the book: Ishiguro says he felt pressure at this point in his career to produce a novel with the same commercial success of The Remains of the Day.
The compelling quality of all of Ishiguro's characters and stories is that they all seem similar to our own lives and experiences. The author manages to leave us uncomfortable and disillusioned because he subtly sucks us into living vicariously through his characters, who end up disappointing us. Because we are given the ability to see things to which they are oblivious, they seem to us trapped in a web of their own making: the big decisions in their lives are put on hold while the mundane or panic issues are given priority. We feel sorry for them, yet at the same time we feel let down because they lack the courage to do something necessary to their lives.
Ishiguro writes in a very sparse Japanese manner, telling only the essential details and sometimes saying one thing while meaning another. His writing is a mix of detached metaphors, hints, comparisons, and mysterious interactions between characters. Ishiguro subtly lures us into each novel by describing more about the surrounding characters and their relationship with the main person. Ishiguro's narrative jumps back and forth in time, using memories and reactions to present circumstances to put flesh on each player. And often we are intrigued, but sometimes flustered, by the incompleteness and lack of clarity in the stories. But then, to come to a place of understanding would give us control and peace of mind-something that Ishiguro seems unwilling to grant us. He is calculated in the information he releases, a strategy that makes us think harder about people.
Ishiguro astutely places us in an awkward, cloudy realm to make us delineate our own specifics of the story. He never says exactly what settings look like, so we have to participate in visualizing the scene. He is often compared to Kafka because he uses complicated, almost dreamlike ways to describe his characters. This technique, too, forces us to imagine more of what is going on and therefore personalize the story and share in its ownership. When an author steps out of traditional, realistic styles of writing, Ishiguro says, he must create and adhere to a new realm; the confusion and internal logic will then have a purpose. We feel like we are scrambling for control and clarity, somewhat like the characters in the story. The intrigue rests in the fact that we are sucked into the events of these characters' lives. What decisions will Ryder make to enrich his life and the community he lives in? How will he make up for all the past wrongs? We are curious-and held in suspense-because we are faced with the same decisions.
From the start of The Unconsoled, Ryder, the narrator, is continually placed in precarious positions because he is living a ruse. Ishiguro says this is a metaphor for most people's lives. He uses themes of self-deception, distancing of families, disappointment in relationships, the tension of not fitting in, devalued ideals, and words unspoken. The characters remember, see themes in their past, become convicted over the wrong they have done, and try to forget it all so they can live with themselves in the future. Ishiguro points out, "You need a little bit of self-deception to give you the courage to carry on in life if you've discovered that you've done a lot of things wrong. It's no bad thing. There's nothing you can do in that situation except try and cheer yourself up a bit." This is a philosophy frequently portrayed in Ishiguro's characterizations.
Even Ishiguro's titles, such as The Unconsoled and The Remains of the Day, suggest a limp, harsh realism that saddens us after we finish the novel and realize the title's impact. He says that the latest title refers to the theme of the book: "It's about people who built their lives on top of things that have broken, wounds that won't heal-something that went wrong very early on. They are looking for consolation in relationships, art, or career. Consola-tion was not to be found." But Ryder continues to search for it. "He is never going to put things right," Ishiguro points out. "It is too late, but he must carry on."
Ishiguro's averseness to traditional story lines, traditional ways, traditional religion, and most other mainstream perceptions invites comparisons to artists such as Woody Allen, Ernest Hemingway, and Steven Spielberg. He is such a brilliant ponderer and compelling artist that he is haunted by the truth he uncovers; he simply does not know how to make sense of it. In short, he knows there is more to this world than what we admit about it. The lure of a good story or fairy tale is that it touches on our belief that somewhere out there in the midst of the confusing life we live, there is meaning. We desperately want someone to say that we matter and that what we strive for has a greater purpose. We yearn for the prince to rescue us in the end, just in time to make everything all right. It rings true because it strikes some deep chord in our hearts.
Because Ishiguro does not know the end of the story, he brings these same desires into the spotlight in his novels and drops us in the mud; or at his most positive point, he believes that self-deception is enough encouragement for us to get out of bed in the morning. He is intrigued by people who try to dignify and justify what he considers to be trivial or meaningless tasks. Yet, ironically, relationships comprise a key element in Ishiguro's universe. He constantly portrays missed opportunities, miscommunications, and alienatations in his characters' lives to show us that life is not worth living if relationships are not vibrant. Even though someone like Stevens the butler may act inconspicuous, he is challenged to make conscious decisions as a result of his interactions.
In this sense, all of Ishiguro's heroes live in denial. They are ineffective in their present circumstances because they have a distorted view of the past; they don't know where they are going or why. Ryder is the only one of Ishiguro's protagonists who feels he is important, central, as events take place around him. Yet, even so, the irony is that he is surrounded by people from his past whom he has somehow failed. His dilemma turns out to be that of any other Ishiguro hero, as he proves to be oblivious to the destructive role he has played.
We cannot help seeing in Ishiguro's reserved observations the author's own internal struggles in grappling with the issues of what gives life meaning. He freely admits he is puzzled and often feels helpless, like the characters in all his books. He says he wants to reach out to others but that there is yet a stronger desire in him to control his environment. He tends to see the negative or frustrating aspects of life. The most obvious gap in Ishiguro's thinking is that he does not allow for a greater outlook that makes sense of all the anguish. He is haunted by the emptiness and the apparent useless agony that people bear in life. He is not terribly optimistic about people's ability to change their circumstances.
Ishiguro understands there are larger issues at stake in the way his characters try to wrestle with social causes, but he does not know where to lead them. He has taken on issues to no apparent end: the meaning of life, universal truth, people's obsessions with control over their world, a sense of being inadequate. Now his new work has to do with his views about an impending judgment day, when everyone will have to give an account for his actions. Ishiguro also mentions in several other instances that people are going to have to atone for past wrongs. This accounting or performance somehow must right all past wrongs, or else the person is doomed. Although Ishiguro says he is not religious, these beliefs make us wonder to whom he thinks we will give account and how we will correct past wrongs. The narrator's trauma in The Unconsoled comes when he realizes he can never right all the wrongs for which he is responsible. Someone needs to come and transform him, to give him a new vision and a new hope that will resolve the messes he's made in the past. In Ishiguro's realm, the character must anxiously face his irreversible failure with denial, pathetic optimism, or suicide. These are the only logical alternatives, if there is no future or elevated meaning in life outside of social and moral responsibility. "I have a genuine admiration for the kind of futile courage that people are able to still muster after they finally face the fact that their lives aren't that great," the author says.
There is hope for Ishiguro. He sees much more of the hopelessness than the average "religious" person who tries to make matters work in his own efforts. Ishiguro understands the essential need for relationship. He sees holes in people and has identified much of what they crave but don't obtain. He realizes that someone needs to turn us around, right our wrongs, and give us a new goal to live for. He also sees the upcoming performance as impossible coming from our own strength. Ishiguro is a nihilistic soul ripe to be rescued by the prince whose own story of past abuse is enough to make us weep again-but for a redemptive end, not hopeless, purposeless, pathetic optimism full of futility.