Kazuo Ishiguro | Critical Review by Gabriele Annan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Kazuo Ishiguro.
This section contains 3,124 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gabriele Annan

Critical Review by Gabriele Annan

SOURCE: Gabriele Annan, "On the High Wire," in New York Review of Books, December 7, 1989, pp. 3-4.

In the review below, Annan argues that in Ishiguro's first three novels he has brilliantly portrayed characters who are unable to see their own faults, evoking condemnation and pity.

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan thirty-five years ago. He came to England when he was six, and has lived there ever since. This is a stranger experience than being Japanese in the United States, where the landscape is dotted with second and third generation Japanese. Even twenty years ago, few Japanese lived in England, and a Japanese child, except in a group of tourists, was a rare sight indeed.

Ishiguro writes in English. His English is perfect, and not just in the obvious sense it is accurate, unhurried, fastidious, and noiseless. A hush seems to lie over it, compounded of mystery and discretion. The elegant bareness inevitably reminds one of Japanese painting. But at the very start of the first novel, A Pale View of Hills, he warns against such a cliché response. A Japanese girl has committed suicide in England:

Keiko … was pure Japanese, and more than one newspaper was quick to pick up on this fact. The English are fond of their idea that our race has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary.

In a sense, all three of Ishiguro's novels are explanations, even indictments, of Japanese-ness, and that applies equally to the third novel, The Remains of the Day, in which no Japanese character appears. He writes about guilt and shame incurred in the service of duty, loyalty, and tradition. Characters who place too high—too Japanese—a price on these values are punished for it.

A Pale View of Hills is eery and tenebrous. It is a ghost story, but the narrator, Etsuko, does not realize that. She is the widow of an Englishman, and lives alone and rather desolate in an English country house. Her elder daughter, Keiko, the child of her Japanese first husband, killed herself some years before. The novel opens during a visit from her younger daughter, Niki, the child of her English second husband. Etsuko recalls her past, but Niki, a brusque, emancipated Western girl, is not very sympathetic. Her visit is uncomfortable and uncomforting, and she cuts it short: not only because of the lack of rapport with her mother, but because she can't sleep. Keiko's unseen ghost keeps her awake.

Etsuko's reminiscences go back to the days just after the war. She is newly married to a boorish company man, and expecting his child. They live in one of the first blocks to be built in the ruins of Nagasaki. Etsuko is lonely and strikes up an acquaintance with an older woman, an embittered post-1945 Madam Butterfly. Sachiko lives in a derelict cottage among the rubble, and receives visits from an American who is always promising to take her to the States, but never does. She has lost everything in the war except her ten-year-old daughter, Mariko. The child is hostile to people but deeply attached to her cat and kittens; her mother leaves her alone for long periods while she goes into Nagasaki about her dubious business. Mariko speaks of visits by a strange, silent woman during her mother's absence. Sachiko explains that this is all imagination, the result of an experience Mariko had in the last days of the war: she saw a woman drown her baby. The woman later killed herself.

Etsuko tries to befriend the disturbed and neglected child, but is rebuffed. Eventually the American lover really seems on the point of taking Sachiko and Mariko away. The kittens are to be left behind. Mariko pleads for them, but her mother drowns them before the child's eyes. Mariko runs away—she has done it before and always come back. Nevertheless, Etsuko insists on going to look for her. It is dark when she finds her by the river. Mariko seems frightened and asks Etsuko why she is trailing a rope. Etsuko replies that it got caught on her foot. Mariko runs from her in terror. The scene is a replay of a earlier occasion when Etsuko also went to retrieve the child, who noticed the rope and fled.

Mariko disappears from the story. Her suicide—actual or just probable—is the second of three, beginning with the woman who drowns her baby and ending with Keiko. They overlay one another like shadows—which they are—on a trebly exposed negative. The fourth shadow is Etsuko herself, though the hint that she too may take her own life is so faint that it may not be there at all. Ishiguro leaves a lot of room for reflection and conjecture, and after one puts down his novels insights go on plopping into one's mind like drops from a tap that is supposed to be turned off.

Etusko feels guilty about having up-rooted Keiko and taken her to England when she remarried. She knew the child would be unhappy in an English environment, though one can be sure she did not force her to leave Japan with the brutality displayed by Sachiko toward her own daughter. Brutality is not part of Etsuko's docile, self-effacing, well-behaved persona—the traditional persona for a Japanese woman of her generation. Even when she was young it was already so much a part of her that she was unable to see how unhappy she was in her role of Japanese wife, or why she could not get through to Mariko. She wanted very much to help the child, but only to become a well-behaved little Japanese girl; and the only method she could think of was to offer her trivial distractions from her obsessions and her misery.

Ishiguro puts across Etsuko's inadequacy behind her back, as it were, even though he does it in her own quiet, resigned, but very faintly smug voice. Her mask never slips: it faces inward as well as outward, blinding her with self-deception. Masks are what Ishiguro's novels are about, and he himself always chooses the mask of a first-person narrator. All the narrators are sedate and formal people so he never needs to drop into any kind of vulgar slang or colloquialism, and hardly to change gear when he allows them to call up a landscape or an atmosphere. Descriptions are as factual and plain as a Morandi still life, but they exude powerful moods and mostly sad ones: nostalgia, regret, resignation.

Just as Etsuko's disapproval of Sachiko in the past and Niki in the present seeps out from under her mask, so does Ishiguro's disapproval of Etsuko herself. The tension of the novel depends on the gradual revelation, clue by clue, of how misguided her behavior has been throughout her life. Ishiguro uses this detective-fiction format in all his novels and with cunning. The narrator is always blind, a well-intentioned person in good standing with him—or herself when the story begins. The degree of insight and disillusion they attain, the shame and remorse they suffer varies from novel to novel. They never go unpunished, though. Ishiguro is severe, vindictive sometimes; but then he is also very good at compelling the reader's pity, sometimes with positively Dickensian pressure.

A Pale View of Hills is about private guilt, but it has a small subplot about public guilt as well. Etsuko's first father-in-law is a retired teacher, proud of his old pupils and what he did for them. What he did for them was to imbue them with imperialist values and spur them on to die in a patriotic war. In postwar Nagasaki these ideas are discredited. The old man is attacked in print by one of his former pupils, and treated with contempt by his son, and even by Etsuko.

In the second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, the teacher of discredited values is the narrator and main character. Mr. Ono is a retired painter and art master, and as in A Pale View of Hills, the story bobs about between reminiscences of different periods of the hero's life. Not that Mr. Ono is a hero: in fact, he is the least admirable and sympathetic of Ishiguro's chief characters, an opportunist and timeserver, adapting his views and even his artistic style to the party in power. So it comes that in the Thirties he deserts his first, westernizing master of painting for the strict, old-fashioned style and patriotic content of the imperialist, propaganda art.

An Artist of the Floating World shows the traditional Japanese atelier system of art training in operation. The pupils all work in the master's studio; in this case they even live together in his villa. The arrangement is charming and convivial up to a point: but there is a lot of unkind teasing, ostracizing, and jockeying for position. Still, the students develop a mutual sense of loyalty, especially toward the master, far more intense than loyalties bred on a Western campus. So Ono's breakaway is seen as a betrayal, and causes much pain.

Worse still, he denounces a dissident colleague to the police, but he remains able to persuade himself that all his apparent disloyalties spring from the best of motives—in this case concern for the future of Japan. His own favorite creation is a painting of boys arming for war while politicians debate; he calls it Complacency. The title would fit the novel itself: It is a wry and funny novel, with the comedy springing from Ono's impregnable self-regard in the face of every kind of humiliation.

The plot hinges on the difficulty of getting Ono's younger daughter married. One match has already fallen through, and delicate negotiations are in progress to arrange another. Ono's daughters persuaded him that the first attempt failed because of his political past. So during the traditional miai—a dinner arranged by the marriage broker to bring the families together—Ono takes it upon himself to confess that he made political mistakes. Everyone is terribly embarrassed, except for Ono, who manages to extend his complacency to being proud of his courageous admission. The marriage takes place, but the irony is that it does not depend on Ono's admission at all. The bridegroom's family, and Ono's family too, consider him much too unimportant for his political record to be of any consequence. But even when his eight-year-old grandson begins to patronize him, his smugness is unshaken, his optimism undiminished. The little macho grandson is a beguiling comic portrait, and the novel as a whole is highly enjoyable, especially for the author's delicate duplicity toward his hero.

It could be called a comedy—just. Ishiguro's third book, The Remains of the Day, is a tragedy in comedy form, both played to the hilt: it is more harrowing than the first book, more broadly funny than the second, but in spite of having recently won the Booker Prize in London, it has more flaws than the others and seems more naive. This time Ishiguro impersonates an aging English butler—one can't help seeing the work as a performance, an act put on with dazzling daring and aplomb. The chronological template is the same as before: from a Fifties present Mr. Stevens recalls the Twenties and Thirties, when he worked for Lord Darlington.

Ishiguro gives a virtuoso performance, telling the story in the old man's pompous, deferential voice. A Japanese soul (or at any rate Ishiguro's critical version of the Japanese soul) could not have chosen a better body to transmigrate into than Stevens's: the butler runs on loyalty, devotion, propriety, and pride in his profession, and after much rumination he decides that the most important quality for a great butler—which his father was and he aspires to be—is dignity. He arrives at this conclusion during a meeting of the Hayes Society, a group of upper-echelon butlers who meet to discuss the finer points of their "profession" with other "professionals."

Sometimes the ghost of P.G. Wodehouse gets into the works. It causes havoc when Stevens tries to carry out instructions to explain the facts of life to Lord Darlington's godson, a young man who has just become engaged to be married. Stevens never gets very far because he keeps being interrupted by the demands of the French foreign secretary, who is staying in the house and wants him to attend to the blisters he got from too much sightseeing. The episode is about as convincing as a country house charade.

While it is going on, Steven's old father lies dying upstairs. Too frail to go on as head butler in his old post, he has joined Lord Darlington's household as second butler, serving under his own son. Their relations are strictly "professional," without intimacy or warmth. One day the old man falls with a trayful of tea things: he has had his first stroke. His duties are curtailed until all he is allowed to do is push a trolley. The second and final stroke comes on during an important house party: Stevens is too busy with the guests to be with his father when he dies. He just carries on:

If you consider the pressures contingent on me that night, you may not think I delude myself unduly if I go so far as to suggest that I did perhaps display, in the face of everything, at least in some modest degree a "dignity" worthy of someone like Mr. Marshall [a model "great" butler]—or come to that, my father.

Ishiguro specializes in the humiliations and sorrows of old age, and I found old Stevens's end as afflicting as Dickens's readers found the deathbed scene of Jo the crossing-sweeper boy.

Stevens sacrifices to his profession not only filial affection, but his own prospect of happiness. Miss Kenton joins the household as housekeeper. She is almost impeccable, and we watch Stevens becoming obsessed with her. Their relationship is prickly: if porcupines had a mating dance it would be like this. Still, the edgy repartee is the nearest thing to a love scene in any of Ishiguro's novels, and there has been no sex at all so far—Miss Kenton makes overtures, Stevens pretends not to notice, and when he hears her sobbing in her room, he pretends he may have been mistaken. "Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?" she says, and makes a loveless match with another man.

Lord Darlington, in Stevens's eyes, is the truly distinguished employer a butler has to have in order to be a truly distinguished butler. He is an eminence grise in British politics: his house parties are arranged to further certain causes, and Stevens is convinced that by helping to make the arrangements perfect he is serving not only a great man but his country as well. There is a problem about Lord Darlington though: we watch him develop from a chivalrous critic of the Versailles Treaty into a Nazi sympathizer. Admirers of Hitler gather at Darlington Hall: Her von Ribbentrop is among the guests: an Anglo-German alliance is being plotted.

After the war Lord Darlington dies, discredited and broken, but Stevens's loyalty to his memory is unshaken. Darlington Hall has been taken over by an American, and Stevens with it, an authentic English butler to go with the authentic Chippendale. Mr. Farraday's genial style is very different from Lord Darlington's hauteur, and the novel opens with Stevens resolving to learn how to banter, since Mr. Farraday's seems to expect bantering from him. It is a move in the direction of democracy, and Stevens is proud of his own progressive attitude in making it. When Mr. Farraday takes a holiday he encourages Stevens to do the same. It will be Stevens's first, and Mr. Farraday lends him a car.

Stevens motors sedately towards Cornwall, where the former Miss Kenton has settled. A letter telling him that she has left her husband has given him an inspiration: she might consider returning to Darlington Hall, where an extra pair of capable hands would not come amiss. Stevens manages to have trouble with his engine, run out of petrol, lose his way. These mishaps may symbolize his incompetence in the face of real life, but they themselves are much less competently handled than the rest of the book. Stevens encounters specimens of ordinary, warm-hearted, decent humanity; each one is an argument for spontaneity, openness, and democracy, and against Japaneseness. They are wooden and implausible, but not as implausible as the sacked maids we read about earlier on: Ishiguro wants us to believe that in the early Thirties there were two Jewish maids on the Darlington Hall staff, and that Lord Darlington instructed Stevens to sack them (he did, of course). I would be prepared to bet that before the arrival of the first German refugees no Jewish maid had ever been seen in an English country house: not for anti-Semitic reasons, but because Jews didn't go in for domestic service. Still, this is Ishiguro's only gross sociological error.

When Stevens finally has his rendezvous with the former Miss Kenton over tea in his hotel, it turns out that she has made it up with her husband.

It took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment, my heart was breaking.

On the homeward journey Stevens breaks down and bursts into tears while defending Lord Darlington to yet another person he happens to meet:

He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship's wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?

Still, he pulls himself together and returns to the pursuit of perfect butlering.

It occurs to me, furthermore, that bantering is hardly an unreasonable duty for an employer to expect a professional to perform. I have of course already devoted much time to developing my bantering skills, but it is possible I have never previously approached the task with the commitment I might have done.

The end is touching, but all the same, The Remains of the Day is too much a roman à thèse, and a judgmental one besides. Compared to his astounding narrative sophistication, Ishiguro's message seems quite banal: Be less Japanese, less bent on dignity, less false to yourself and others, less restrained and controlled. The irony is that it is precisely Ishiguro's beautiful restraint and control that one admires, and, in the case of the last novel, his nerve in setting up such a high-wire act for himself.

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This section contains 3,124 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gabriele Annan
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