A Pale View of Hills | Critical Essay by Cynthia F. Wong

This literature criticism consists of approximately 23 pages of analysis & critique of A Pale View of Hills.
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Critical Essay by Cynthia F. Wong

SOURCE: Cynthia F. Wong, "The Shame of Memory: Blanchot's Self-Dispossession in Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills," in Clio, Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 127-45.

In the following essay, Wong employs literary theorist Maurice Blanchot's theories on first person narration to analyze Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills.

"… the necessary condition for the solitude of a madman is the presence of a lucid witness."


The first novels of the Japanese-born and British-educated contemporary writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, employ a deceptively simple narrative strategy to develop the remembrances of protagonists reflecting upon and finding a meaning for their personal lives. Speaking in the period after turbulent historical times, the first-person narrators set private experience into a public realm; they seek to induct a reader, a witness, into their stories. They make an admission that their seemingly ordinary tales will be insufficient given the limitations of memory but, in establishing the fact of forgetfulness and the gaps in retelling, they also critique significant world events from their uniquely estranged perspectives.

In acknowledging the limits of their telling, however, the narrators reveal what literary theorist Maurice Blanchot calls their "torment of language," their search for a way to divest themselves of the prior period within the very act of retelling:

It is narrative (independently of its content) that is a forgetting, so that to tell a story is to put oneself through the ordeal of this first forgetting that precedes, founds, and ruins all memory. Recounting, in this sense, is the torment of language, the incessant search for its infinity. And narrative would be nothing other than an allusion to the initial detour that is borne by writing and that carries it away, causing us, as we write, to yield to a sort of perpetual turning away.

The narrators at first seek order and a means to revise the personal past. The narrators' initial gesture toward self-understanding soon gives way to what Blanchot calls the effect of their narrative's "deflected relation" to life, a tension the reader acknowledges in the narrators' effort to locate memory in order to master it. For the narrators, self-knowledge from retrieval and telling evolves not merely as a form of self-mastery but also self-dispossession, "unworking" the memories and "turning away" from one's past. In other words, they remember in order to forget; they reconstruct the past in an effort to obliterate it. Blanchot's concerns with speech and speechlessness are important in depicting how narrators apprehend "disastrous" personal and world events, and his critical theory may amplify the strategies important to Ishiguro's work.

Ishiguro's first published novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), sets forward the estrangement effect described by Blanchot through a narrative technique that also characterizes his two later works. I will analyze this novel primarily to highlight the implications of Blanchot's narrative theory for Ishiguro's novels. In A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro presents an unusually "quiet" and oddly tranquil narrative told by an elderly Japanese woman living in England in the story's present moment; the occasion for the tale told by Etsuko is the recent suicide of her oldest daughter Keiko, an event which is painfully heightened by a visit from her second daughter Niki (Keiko's half-sister), but which is curiously subdued in Etsuko's remembrances. Most of Etsuko's tale is recounted in solitude; Niki's visit only emphasizes Etsuko's privacy, especially when the narrative moves into past events. In working through the meaning of her dead daughter's life, Etsuko situates her tale in Nagasaki and focuses on a strange and enigmatic friendship with another woman named Sachiko, whose own daughter's actions seem to foretell the suicide of Etsuko's daughter years later.

In all his novels, Ishiguro's narrators join two realms—personal experience and historical event—to produce an unusual narrative tension, or what Blanchot calls the narrator's struggle to "maintain the primacy of an individual consciousness" in order "to cover up by revealing." Years later, in recounting private experiences, the narrators establish the context of those individual moments against history; the narrators' consciousness of historical circumstances prompts their reassessment of the private past, but their determination to maintain the primacy of self is tied to producing a false disclosure. Significantly, they each express doubts about the veracity and clarity of memory, as if such admission of their uneasiness would also undo the pain associated with the past.

Specifically, in Etsuko's narrative, the two events found in past and present are tied to her subsequent dissociation of pain itself. Remembering Nagasaki, Etsuko is able to forget the premonition of death she connects with that period. Remembering the pain of the past, she is able to forget, momentarily, the horror of her daughter's demise. However, as Etsuko reconstructs the past period, she also reveals her reluctance to either fully remember or reveal, a technique Ishiguro uses in other novels. Like Etsuko, Stevens, the narrator of The Remains of the Day (1989), for instance, also critically assesses the function of his memory with the idea that "when with the benefit of hindsight one begins to search one's past for … 'turning points,' one is apt to start seeing them everywhere," and he implies that such articulation of a consciousness may reveal truth's elusiveness. Similarly, the narrator Masuji Ono of An Artist of the Floating World (1986) punctuates his story with remarks that any reconstructed narrative may be flawed representation, "may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon." His narrative, in this continued fabrication, becomes a self-acknowledged tale comprised as much from forgetfulness as remembrance. And Etsuko herself observes how memory "can be an unreliable thing" as she struggles for correspondence in recalling what she might have felt or experienced in the tumultuous period with what actual memory produces.

All of Ishiguro's novels deal with a great divide, whether between individuals or nations. By endowing his characters with knowledge of their flawed memories, Ishiguro tests the limits of their telling against their struggle both to reveal and to veil meaning. How does the dual desire to remember and reveal correspond with the compulsion to "unwork" and dissociate oneself from the memories of the past? Moreover, what does the uneasy conjunction of private experiences and public contexts mean in the relationship between the individual and history?

All of Ishiguro's narrators structure their tales according to discernible historical events and, in the unfolding of their texts, the narrators appear to arrive closer at uncovering some missing version of truth about that period. The narratives' evasive movement toward the respective disclosures indicates some secret to be revealed about the narrators' past guilt, embarrassment, or disgrace. For instance, Stevens' motor trip toward Mrs. Benn is also an internal journey reflecting on his repressed love for Miss Kenton (prior to becoming Mrs. Benn) which had resulted from his loyalty to Lord Darlington at a crucial period in world history—the moment between world wars concerning the future of Germany and Great Britain. Masuji Ono's hopeful anticipation of the lives of his two daughters is a retrospective examination of his role in Japanese imperialism, which led to postwar denunciations of artists like himself. Etsuko's mourning for a recently deceased daughter is transformed into a remembrance of the period following the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki, particularly to events which might help explain her daughter's suicide. For all three narrators, the return to the past is prompted by an intense and personal emotion in the present moment of narration; each foretells in the opening of the respective texts of a futile, but necessary, effort to reconfigure the events owing to a subsequent emotion which the reader will identify as their shame about the past. Each returns to a past which might atone for the present. Even a failed memory might allow each to reexamine significance in the new context and to account for the solitude of that past. Therefore, each does not undertake a "revision" in the usual sense of simply re-seeing the events again. Rather, the narrators reposition themselves in the new contexts and assess their own roles in contributing to both private and historical events. In light of the new knowledge, they reveal two important inversions: one between private and public and the other between narrative past and future. The act of remembering is tied to their unworking—or inverting—the shame of an irrevocable past. Importantly, their eventual remembrances become emblems of their self-dispossession from the past period, and it is this redoubling that I will examine.

In the second part of this essay, I will concentrate on the first-person narrative strategy of Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of Hills, and indicate later how Ishiguro's next two novels also develop a similar concern for the protagonists' limits of memory, as well as their simultaneous desire for and dread of disclosure. Because the return to the past is charged by Etsuko's desire to master the substance of memory, I will begin with Genette's structural analysis of temporal development in order to suggest that the manner of Etsuko's telling is thematically linked to the way memory is shaped by a will to dissociate herself from this period. Such a formal examination of the narrative reveals the tension between individual consciousness and historical circumstances; it also extends Blanchot's discussion of the narrator's strained tale that results from such a form. I then will indicate how the content of Etsuko's tale, which seems to derive at first from the act of remembrance, is indeed an inversion of memory itself—the reappearances from the dreaded past arrive in the form of her desire to forget the shame associated with the events. From the mutual interdependence of the two constructions—of self and history—I will indicate how this novel might reestablish the role of fiction in the interpretation of human events according to Blanchot's claim that literature is bound to language in a special way which renders it both "reassuring and disquieting at the same time." More specifically, through analysis of this first novel, I will suggest that the narrators of Ishiguro's next two novels also develop a growing awareness of missed opportunity and obligation in the past which propels them to reconfigure, perhaps even fictionalize, that prior period. For these narrators, the construction of a narrative in the "present" moment evolves into an assertion of the shame that both indicts and forgives them.

"No one likes to recognize himself as a stranger in a mirror where what he sees is not his own double but someone whom he would have liked to have been."

As narrator of Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of Hills, Etsuko tells the tragic tale of her daughter's suicide. The "madness" of Keiko's act is subtly linked to Etsuko's memory of her own self. In one brief scene with her father-in-law, Etsuko Ogata refers to herself as once being "a mad girl" and asks Ogata-San, "'What was I like in those days, Father? Was I like a mad person?'" Father's response, "'We were all shocked, those of us who were left,'" alludes to the historical moment which would have produced Etsuko's "madness" in a way that not only validates Etsuko's memory of herself but which also attributes a similar pain to others who remain. Ogata-San's words are both consoling and disrupting: his assessment establishes a relationship between Etsuko's past and present.

Etsuko constructs her personal story using three distinct temporal orders, what Genette terms prolepsis (anticipation), analepsis (flash-back), and anachrony or discordance between the récit (telling) and histoire (tale). Against the backdrop of Nagasaki's reconstruction in the late forties, Etsuko in England in the early eighties returns to two pasts—her own during the reconstruction and an earlier past remembered by others in this same period—in order to clarify the meaning of two futures: the "present" when she undertakes the narrative task and time beyond. However, if Etsuko's first-person account is dubious given her own awareness of being mad immediately following the bombing, it also is filled with lucid observation of the way historical circumstances produced one's sense of self in those times. This anachronic feature in the narrative extends the personal story and urges the reader to examine the sociohistorical aspects which inform it. A preliminary structural analysis of the narrative reveals the deeper implications of the discordance, that the attempt to produce a coherent narrative is tied to a desire to forget those very events.

Etsuko's own admission of madness attests to an understanding of self that requires another person to either validate or challenge; she seeks a lucid witness. Ogata-San's assessment propels Etsuko toward this understanding. His perspective, like those of other principal characters in her past, serves to either mirror or deflect what she herself attempts to recollect. In telling what she recalls, then, she is aware of her limitations: she says, "Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.'" Etsuko expresses an important condition of analepsis or flashback; moreover, she approximates an important truth about the temporal limits of narrative and marks what Blanchot calls its principle of incompleteness in her telling:

A [human] being, insufficient as it is, does not attempt to associate itself with another being to make up a substance of integrity. The awareness of the insufficiency arises from the fact that it puts itself in question, which question needs the other or another to be enacted. Left on its own, a being closes itself, falls asleep and calms down. A being is either alone or knows itself to be alone only when it is not.

Etsuko reconstructs her self from the mirrors of the past and from her interactions with other people, although what is reflected back to her may or may not coincide with her eventual understanding of that past. Blanchot's enigmatic assessment above expresses Etsuko's solitary condition when she first undertakes the narrative task: her self-absorbed memory alone is insufficient to convey the fullness of any event. Etsuko seems to understand intuitively this incompleteness when she searches for remembrance of the relationships she had with others. Whether these interactions were self-flattering or complementary to her own desire for eventual self-understanding Etsuko leaves ambiguous. The memory of other people in this period allows her to locate and place into perspective the different pieces of the past. While the personal story serves as the platform for the telling of other stories, it also reconsiders the past from new vantage points, thus reestablishing Etsuko's interpretation of events each time a new piece is added to memory.

The circumstances of Etsuko's emigration from Japan to England about a decade after the end of the Pacific War are revealed through a retrospective narrative which is instigated by a family tragedy, with each backward look revealing some historical development. She recalls three primary episodes from the past, a period which is characterized by its transient and impermanent state. Each aspect develops a distinct level of meaning pertinent to Etsuko's recollection as a whole. The first involves the developing but abruptly terminated friendship with a woman (Sachiko) and her young daughter (Mariko) who appear in Etsuko's neighborhood soon after early efforts to rebuild Nagasaki are underway; the second concerns the strained relationships with her first husband (Jiro) and her father-in-law (Ogata-San) and signifies the decline of traditional kinship ties; and the third is an enigmatic and non-chronological sequence which appears mostly as a remembrance of her dead daughter (Keiko) through disjointed images that merge past and present, but which do not develop the daughter's character given their fleeting recall. The framing device for these past reflections stems from the five-day visit of Etsuko's second daughter (Niki) from her dead second husband, an English journalist (Sheringham) who had written articles about Japan. Niki's early spring visit reminds Etsuko of the particular summer in the past, and it also prompts the narrator to consider her daughter's future in the context of past errors and omissions.

The analepsis of the narrative is triggered by images which visit Etsuko during Niki's stay, while the moments of anticipation from the past slowly evolve into meaning for Etsuko years later in England, a completely different space. Specifically, conversations with Niki concerning motherhood oblige Etusko's return to the period of her first pregnancy which is marked by the unusual friendship with Sachiko and mysterious encounters with the daughter Mariko. In one scene, Etsuko assesses the meaning of such an encounter, that it had been "capable of arousing in me every kind of misgiving about motherhood."

Etsuko's own calculated examination of such past moments suggests their key role in perhaps "explaining" the later events. What remains unspoken in the mother's narrative is the pain of death, including the destruction of Nagasaki and her daughter's own suicide years later in Manchester, England. Like the nuclear destruction which fragmented Japan, the imminent loss of Etsuko's daughter in the anterior future of the narrative is shown from the perspective of the past which contains Sachiko and Mariko, with these scenes serving to fill in the missing pieces of Etsuko's own life between Nagasaki and England, the time of Keiko's upbringing. The parallels between the two grown women in the past reflect, structure, and then compound the mysteries hinted at in the text; they also create an important link between the young girl in the past (Mariko) who might help explain another dead girl's lifetime later in the narrative.

In other words, analepsis and prolepsis clarify episodes concerning Mariko in this particular past and foretell the future which contains Keiko who is, at that time, still in her mother's womb. The figurative rebirth of the dead girl through another girl from Etsuko's past structures the narrative and charts the fateful outcome. The meaning of the past and its eventual "future" culminate in the final scene of Niki's departure from Etsuko's English home, with the mother bidding her second daughter a farewell that nevertheless suggests future meetings between them. Departure, with the extreme condition entailing death in the cases of the war casualties and Keiko, serves as formal limits in the narrative.

Etsuko recounts that prior period in order to understand how the events might have determined the outcome of the present. The gesture is also an effort to look onward to an uncertain but promising future for a living daughter who remains. The overlapping temporal structures thus anticipate the theme of optimism in the novel reiterated by Mrs. Fujiwara, who had lost practically everything in the war. She says to Etsuko during her pregnancy, "'You must keep your mind on happy things now. Your child. And the future.'" In remembering this utterance Etsuko considers how it applies to a "future" that is now past; the futility of meaning behind Mrs. Fujiwara's words, no matter how hopeful, nevertheless points toward the shame associated with Etsuko's memory of this period.

If the processes of looking backward and moving forward are discernible in the narrator's shuttling of key events, the anachronistic aspect of the text is conveyed by discordance between what Etsuko reveals of the past in relation to the reader's perception of meaning in the present. If Etsuko's own perceived "madness" is contested by Ogata-San's assessment of her "shock," that same self-perception has the effect of dismantling some of her narrative authority. Etsuko's ability to present a fair assessment of the historical past in the personal narrative produces another possible reading of A Pale View of Hills as the self-revelation of one woman's madness. Such a reading might clarify the mysterious relationship of Sachiko and Mariko to Etsuko, Keiko, and Niki; it also might be the key to uncovering a secret about Nagasaki, what Etsuko characterizes, but initially fails to elaborate, as "the tragedies and nightmares of wartime." Etsuko's augmenting knowledge of the past provokes the reader toward a gradual move toward disclosure, what Blanchot calls a "desoeuvrement" or unworking, of the wartime past remembered by Etsuko.

Such a reading might reveal discord in the narrator's remembered past, but it would do so by "conferring on the second narrative an explanatory function." Despite Etsuko's otherwise lucid recounting of the past, the reader grows increasingly uneasy as the events unfold because what Etsuko remembers seems as if it ought to interpret what she in the present moment leaves unspoken—but in fact it does not. Memory here serves not to explain the past as much to set it in the perspective of the present, with the reader's emerging realization that a comprehensible past is finally impossible. In other words, Etsuko's narrative is incomplete; what Blanchot above defined as an insufficiency that permeates the tale collides with the reader's expectation of a full and coherent disclosure. The reader cannot truly validate the incompatible details of Etsuko's past and future without undermining conventional aspects of the narrative itself; only by casting doubt on Etsuko's veracity can be reader probe the veiled truth in a manner set forth by the narrative itself.

Etsuko's narrative provokes instead a reading which allows for complexities without eradicating narrative authority. To indicate that Sachiko is Etusko's alter-ego is to diminish the horrible fact that only Etusko might have been affected by the aftermath of war. Rather than regard Etsuko as an unreliable narrator, it may be more fruitful to see how her "madness" is a testament to the fatal outcomes of nuclear ruin. Her memory of the devastation reveals the perverse democratization of the destruction: everyone suffered the pain and the ruin in ways markedly similar. To compress all the events of Etsuko's narrative past into one woman's confused ranting about that time is to diminish one meaning of Nagasaki's legacy, that its aftermath had tentacles reaching far beyond the moment. More precisely, to fuse the identities of Sachiko with Etsuko in the schizophrenic interpretation amounts to a reader's refusal to see that Etsuko was among many women affected by the bombing of Nagasaki. That Sachiko "really" existed may not be the point worth quibbling about. Instead, it is more important that Etsuko remembered Sachiko at all, especially given the turbulence of those times.

In truth, any narrative of a historical event can be told only from a select perspective, with attention to the limits of that telling. To regard A Pale View of Hills as solely one woman's experiences—and a neurotic one at that—is to demolish the painful truth of human destruction, that it is often unspeakable, except through the private events and tragedies which reflect a larger social situation. While Etsuko's narrative appears at times to withhold important information, the reluctant disclosure is consistent with her narrative task to show the effects of the war, rather than to make manifest polemical assertions. The diminishing of personal facts corresponds with the narrative task of telling world, not merely personal, history. Etsuko's effacement is therefore necessary to this construction if it is to emulate the pain of destruction.

If the past appears no less explanatory in the present, even with the benefit of time for possible reflection, the narrative's seemingly evasive strategy reinforces how, in death and destruction, so much remains unspeakable and incomprehensible. More poignant in Etsuko's withholding or refusal to disclose is the silent fact that many civilians of Nagasaki already had died or were dying from nuclear radiation during the time recounted in Etsuko's reexamination. Most, like Mrs. Fujiwara, were literally picking up small pieces from the pain and sorrow to reconstruct an existence of some dignity. When Sachiko scoffs at Mrs. Fujiwara's humble noodle shop operation, the reader—through Etsuko's sympathies—understands the magnitude of human loss in the face of another person's refusal to valorize the efforts of reconstruction. Silence, therefore, serves as affirmation of destruction's aftermath; verbal consolation could only exist at the margins of the pain of truth and loss, beyond its possibility as narrative.

Etsuko's retelling of Nagasaki's efforts to rebuild might serve as personal solace for her own present circumstances, but the quiet tone which permeates the telling hints at the story's implication for assessing historical facts. What Genette terms the "narrative mood," or the spatial distance and temporal dislocation contributing to a narrative's tone, shows how Etsuko chooses "to regulate the information [her narrative] delivers, not with a sort of even screening, but according to the capacities of knowledge of one or another participant in the story." That Sachiko might be the other "participant" in Etsuko's story becomes evident as the story centers on a woman's efforts to leave Japan. Sachiko's desire to leave Nagasaki in the period of reconstruction mirrors Etsuko's own unknowing desire to reconstruct a tale which would come years later. The conjunction of the two women's stories also culminates in Etsuko's effort to refashion an image of herself through Ogata-San's recollection.

Importantly, if Sachiko's attempts to escape from Nagasaki are manifested through the later, though unfinished, portrait of Etsuko's own departure to England, Mariko's response to her mother's desires seem to foretell Keiko's fate. During Niki's visit, the household is filled with tension about Keiko, and it is Etsuko's constant remembrance of the past which deflects an extended discussion of death in the "present." Etsuko's return to the past serves to recapitulate history in a moment filled with personal pain, but it is a thwarted effort to merge the private with the social, or what Blanchot calls "the sharing of the secret" between mother and daughter in the present moment of narrative. In other words, Etsuko slowly turns toward what had been kept guarded or hidden and begins the process of unworking the pain in the very silence between herself and Niki. Blanchot calls this condition of "sharing" the first step toward breaking the limits of the repressed past:

It is also in this sense that what was most personal could not be kept as the secret of one person alone, as it broke the boundaries of the person and demanded to be shared, better, to affirm itself as the very act of sharing.

Etsuko's account of her present life in England and of the past, comprised mostly of family and a limited social life in postwar Nagasaki, has no more subversive intent than to reveal the pain suffered by common people during a turbulent historical period. In other words, the narrative act itself becomes the possible sharing of grief among people. By referring to the past community in Nagasaki and speaking about the present state of affairs, Etsuko gives in to the inevitability of the past as it will determine the outcome in the future, which has already occurred by the time the narrative begins; she does so by producing a private story which is the mirror of other stories still untold. Ishiguro examines the wounds of nuclear destruction in the psyches of a few individuals as seen through Etsuko and, in this way, achieves a fuller portrait than what factual records such as a body count, for instance, might reveal.

What propels the narrative forward, then, has less to do with exposing political depths or revealing family secrets than exploring the peculiar atmosphere of a society reconstructing itself from the remains of nuclear destruction, a fact of the community that is revealed in public records. Everyone in Nagasaki was profoundly affected by devastation, not just a few select individuals singled out for private pain. Foucault's "common odyssey" of people suffering destruction required a maintenance of human dignity in the face of adverse social conditions. This odyssey establishes what Blanchot above called the affirmation of self and others within the community. By remembering the details of existence, one procures—even if years later—the anticipated, but persistently deferred, meaning of those particular episodes. Because the only precedent to such a cataclysm occurred but one day earlier in Hiroshima, the people of Japan were faced with the monumental task of preserving what vestiges remained of their material lives before rebuilding their emotional and psychological ones as well. Thus enveloped in death and knowledge of destruction, most acted out of instinct and a will to survive the aftermath of horror. No wonder, as in Etsuko's case, that so much time passed before a private horror prompted her to revisit her experiences in Nagasaki and, in so doing, examine the meaning of the personal against history.

In their efforts to rebuild a future for themselves and therefore reconstruct a strong society, the Japanese of A Pale View of Hills find a dependable structure in the institution of the family, although in Etsuko's case, this familiar structure eventually collapses. In emulating their symbolic head of state, their emperor, the characters in the novel stress the importance of solidifying their familial relationships. Their interactions are rooted in a discourse of family: loyalty, allegiance, and guidance are important traits of this strengthening. Those who fail to fulfill the terms of these expectations are held in shameful regard while those who put aside personal gain for the benefit of making the family unit cohesive are viewed more positively. This perspective is best reflected in the words of Ogata-San, who speaks for his pre-war generation when he says, "'Discipline, loyalty, such things held Japan together once. That may sound fanciful, but it's true. People were bound by a sense of duty. Toward one's family, towards superiors, towards the country.'" Stated in a rhetoric inflammatory to American democracy, Ogata-San's perspective contests the views of the young, such as those embodied by his son's contemporary, Shigeo Matsuda, who was once Ogata-San's pupil and who, after the war, had written an offensive article against the previous generation. Matsuda tells Ogata-San during a confrontation of wills: "'In your day, children in Japan were taught terrible things. They were taught lies of the most damaging kind. Worst of all, they were taught not to see, not to question. And that's why the country was plunged into the most evil disaster in her entire history.'" Etsuko's representation of these two opposing views shows the impact of individual action upon the collective. During the period of reconstruction, the important terms of the family were thus destabilized: especially for the young, loyalty to the family and state was less effective than a thorough critique of the institutional apparatus. Destruction in Nagasaki was more than physical ruin; it also dismantled values long held sacred in the secular foundation of Japanese society, and it split the Japanese into generational factions.

Not surprisingly, then, in the period Etsuko recounts, the people of Nagasaki are undergoing massive transitions, and the simple dichotomies of right and wrong behavior seem permanently contestable. Following a lull from the worst of the devastation, Etsuko expresses the dubious atmosphere still lingering, that "on the whole the feeling among the occupants seemed one of satisfaction. And yet I remember an unmistakable air of transience there, as if we were all of us waiting for the day we could move to something better." In maintaining strong relationships among family members and friends, people sought to establish the terms for their uncertain future. However, the nuclear destruction sufficiently guaranteed that families would be rent apart in irrevocable ways. The older generation lost faith in the younger, while the latter held the former responsible for unspeakable acts. On the one hand, those who survived the bombing suffered privately; on the other, it is also true that the privacy of the pain was generalized to the society at large. If at times it appeared that Sachiko and Etsuko were the same person, it is also true that many people experienced similar forms of devastation. While the generalities do not diminish the personal suffering, neither do they disperse, and in effect lessen, their intensity among the collective.

To examine this manifestation of the private onto the public during the time of Nagasaki's rebuilding, Etsuko herself reports that the city is intermittently struck by child murders; the news brings report of the tragedies which occur with no discernible pattern. The murders are a double wound on the society, because the young are regarded symbolically as the purveyors of their parents' legacy and thus hold the promise of a new future; in this way, children of the reconstruction period—those who survived the bombing and those waiting to be born—became the salve for those who died in war, even while their parents were denouncing the grandparents. The senselessness and arbitrariness of the violence are reflected in the way the child murders also metaphorically pronounce a death of the future, a message that is embedded in several incidents in Etsuko's narrative. When she speaks of the "misgivings" of motherhood, for instance, she herself embodies the fears and uncertainly of, literally, letting out the next generation.

"There is nothing that the madness of men invents which is not either nature made manifest or nature restored."

"Moreover, the power of destructive forces, both outside and within the individual and society, has never appeared as incontestable and irrevocable as it does today."

What begins for Etsuko as a personal postmortem, inquiring into her daughter's death, evolves into a tale about Nagasaki after the bombing. Inquiry into the past serves as the platform for Etsuko's historical consciousness. From the personal tragedy to the fact of Nagasaki, the narrative's unfolding resembles what Blanchot earlier called the sharing of a secret between Etsuko and the reader: there are some events in life rendered forever unspeakable, but it is in the effort to find expression that one deflects the torment of life onto language. Keiko's death, devastating for the mother who could not guarantee her daughter's happiness and salvation in a foreign land, parallels the meaninglessness of the many lives lost to the atomic bomb. Just as horrific in the tale are the shattered lives being salvaged amidst the wreckage. Etsuko imagines the many days her daughter hung dead and undiscovered in a city of strangers:

I have found myself continually bringing to mind that picture—of my daughter hanging in her room for days on end. The horror of that image has never diminished, but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one's own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.

The indelible image becomes, paradoxically, the inverse process of destruction; rather than seeing it as an alienated image, the viewer allows it to inhabit her own self so that, in refusing to diminish the power of the image, Etsuko here allows instead for a macabre intimacy, a kind of emotional scab for possible healing.

In thus speaking Nagasaki's story through her daughter's anomalous death, Etsuko manages to infuse the narrative with its strange effect, its seemingly straightforward narration compounded by the subtle suggestions of much deeper implications. As Etsuko leaps back into the past, the reader begins to understand that what remains below the surface of her speech and admission of pain struggles not for expression but silence. Etsuko's mysterious compilation of details concerning Sachiko's life, for instance, evolves less as an effort to speak fully that tale than to represent the grief enveloping her own life—and by extension, the lives of those remaining after Nagasaki—as a silent and ineffable tale. Of this inexplicable state of affairs between self and history, between private experiences and their public contexts, Blanchot writes about the personal and the communal efforts to merge the two realms:

It does not follow, however, that the community is the simple putting in common, inside the limits it would propose for itself, of a shared will to be several, albeit to do nothing, that is to say, to do nothing else than maintain the sharing of "something" which, precisely, seems always already to have eluded the possibility of being considered as part of a sharing: speech, silence.

Impossible to present the story even to herself, Etsuko can deliver the tale only as the "torment of language" that seeks a beginning and an end to infinite pain of memory and its associated images. Ishiguro's deceptively simple manner of presenting Etsuko's retrospective narrative is complicated by the determination to let silence itself speak. In turning toward the dreaded past, Etsuko conveys a tale that is the disclosure not of a tangible secret, but of a private shame associated with the memories now on the verge of becoming public.

Still, in order to understand how the historical conditions compel either silence or speech, it is necessary to consider how Etsuko's personal case elucidates the political circumstances of postwar Japan. Through Etsuko, Ishiguro seems to ask who or what is, in the end, responsible for the destruction experienced by the common people? What might a postmortem on the political facts reveal to these civilians? The policy of silence which Niki and Etsuko maintain about Keiko's suicide corresponds to the civilians' silence concerning the role of the Emperor in the war. In the novel, Etsuko's husband Jiro covertly establishes a rift against his father, Ogata-San, and shows how young Japanese will use innuendo rather than speak directly in order to convey their hostile sentiments. Jiro most piercingly displays his anger during the chess game with his father. Furthermore, Jiro refuses to speak with his former classmate (Matsuda) about the article written explicitly against the policies of his father's generation. Ogata-San, in keeping with the Japanese tradition of biting back his tongue on any confrontation, is reduced to the shame of having to approach Matsuda himself. What might have remained a family matter turns into a public forum for confrontation. However, as seen in Etsuko's efforts to speak about her own family, the public realm often makes the concealed and the personal more evident, therefore calling attention to the very facts which one sought to conceal.

The themes of individual responsibility and action reappear in Ishiguro's next two novels. The attendant concerns of memory and shame recur as narrative strategies and produce the tension associated with disclosure and concealment. Masuji Ono's tale is less a reflection of his glory days as an artist in Imperial Japan than a rationalizing account of his own participation in world affairs. The narrator Ono notes at the end of the novel that those like him, "have the satisfaction of knowing that whatever we did, we did at the time in the best of faith … When one holds convictions deeply enough, there comes a point when it is despicable to prevaricate further." The consolatory tone that characterized Etsuko's farewell to her two daughters—one dead, another alive—reappears in Ono's rationalization, moreover, the tone betrays the very prevarication that arose from the limits of his remembrances. Ono's tale, like Etsuko's, is wrought from the pain of the unspeakable; the efforts to tell the stories of the past are wound into the narrator's growing awareness that the tale is finally unaccountable and inexplicable. In The Remains of the Day, Stevens' tale, evolving at the outset as the mission to restore housekeeping help, becomes a confrontation with his allegiance to Lord Darlington, a Nazi sympathizer. To the very end he maintains the onerous lie of his lordship's indirect encouragement of genocide. Stevens' evasion of Darlington's guilt coincides with his silence about love for Miss Kenton/Mrs. Benn, with the two relationships establishing private "enlightenment" and public shame in that narrative.

All three novels appear to end with the narrator's renewed understanding about the past, although their dissimulation remains just below the surface of their overt telling. Even though each confesses to a flawed memory, each also structures the telling to reveal less the substance of an emerging secret than their desires to dispossess or unburden themselves of this past. They are in effect tormented by the confrontation with the past; they seek the compassionate ear of a reader and eye of the witness to ascertain for themselves the necessity of reconstructing an acceptable past. In so doing, however, they attempt to conceal the overbearing shame associated with this past. Their telling emerges as the effort to eradicate shame in the very engagement with language.

Conversely, the narrator's evasions are tied to the pain of lurid history itself. In Etsuko's case, if the nuclear arsenal once, literally, dazzled those from afar, that same power casts unspeakable destruction so that even those who survived never recover a language to speak fully that explosion. At the heart of Ishiguro's fiction lies the mortal's confrontation with empirical realities which preclude the possibility of expression. Ishiguro's narrators disarm the reader who searches for the recognizable stutters characteristic of so much contemporary literature. Rather, the narrators speak easily and calmly at first, with the difficulties of telling everything veiled by the very eloquence which masks their pain. Rather than actually deflect this pain, however, their efforts to locate and name the source and site of their experiences thrust them into the torment that both challenges and validates their silence. Only by first acknowledging the catastrophes of their past are they able to begin a critique of their significance. The preliminary gestures of naming and resisting the silence place them on the threshold of admitting to the shame which had structured their memories of that period. Subsequently, they move toward self absolution in language which also contests this possibility.

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Critical Essay by Cynthia F. Wong from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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