Am distraught that Shamya’s beaten me to it; thought I had the cosmological right to be the first ever to blog on Kazuo Ishiguro. I console myself that since I got him interested in the first place, the moral victory, in cricketing parlance, is mine. Nevertheless, I have dallied enough and must now put down my own thoughts on the man who I usually designate my favourite living writer (with a few qualifications: Rushdie’s non-fiction and Philip Roth being among them).
I came to Kazuo Ishiguro, oddly enough, through cinema. I had just seen Remains of the Day, starring Anthony Hopkins in an incredibly moving performance (far better, I thought, than his throwaway Hannibal Lecter) and something about the film made me want to read the book on which it was based (something that rarely happened in those days). So I went out and got it, and read it, and liked it as much as I’d liked the film. That was about all. This was 1994 or thereabouts, my beat was still cinema rather than literature, and I was hardly into contemporary writing at the time anyway.(I use "my beat" in a manner of speaking, for I was still years away from writing reviews professionally.)
As the time, I should add, I thought of Remains of the Day (the book) not as something that was part of a particular writer’s oeuvre but as an independent work that I had perchance stumbled upon. My interest in it was limited to its connection with the movie and much as I enjoyed it, it didn't make me want to read anything else by this (sniff) living writer, a man who was only around 40 years old at the time. (I had my Melville, I had my Dickens, I had my books on cinema.)
Seven years later, I came upon Ishiguro’s latest book, When We Were Orphans, bought it on pure whim and finished it by the next day, and that’s when my fascination with the man began. Within a fortnight, I had read his 1986 novel An Artist of the Floating World and I knew I was hooked.
What is it about Ishiguro? To me, his work (along with that of Somerset Maugham’s to an extent) exemplifies the truth of the adage that simplicity can be very deceptive. His writing style is so direct compared with that of his contemporaries (think of the first Granta list of best young British writers in 1983: Ishiguro in the company of Rushdie, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Margaret Atwood among others) that you’ll never once have to reach for a dictionary or even pore over a sentence while reading one of his novels. But his narratives are tricky things: they deal mostly with the unreliability and subjectivity of memories, and it’s only by putting oneself in the writer’s position that one can appreciate the concentration of effort required to tie the various plot strands together. His protagonists/narrators search futilely for the defining moments in their lives and come up against dead ends; and his work is marked by the repeated use of words like "indeed" and "considerably" that may seem genteel (leading to much criticism of Ishiguro as overly mannered) but that are also very well-suited to narrators who are introspective and uncertain about themselves. And there is a turbulence of unexpressed emotions in his work that never ceases to grip my attention.
My regard for Ishiguro reached high tide when I read his longest, and most underappreciated, novel, The Unconsoled. I would think 20 times before venturing to set down even the most informal, free-flowing list of my favourite books, but if I ever got around to it The Unconsoled would be very near the top. This is a dream of a book that also just happens to be one of the best, purest examples of surrealist art I’ve ever come across (the soft spot I have for that movement helped my appreciation of this novel).
While there is no change in Ishiguro’s writing style (it’s stayed the same through all five of his books so far), The Unconsoled is different from all his other work in that it doesn’t permit a "logical reading". Well, actually, the book does give the impression of having a formal structure. It’s about a world-renowned pianist who has come to a (unnamed) central European city to give an important performance, one that somehow also has political connotations for the people of the city. But the narrator, Mr Ryder, seems to have arrived with his mind a clean slate. He learns things about himself and his reason for being in this place only as he goes along: he doesn’t know anything about his schedule and has to be gently rebuked by the organisers; little annoyances and distractions continually detract from his main purpose, although he himself appears unaware of what exactly that purpose is; he meets an unfamiliar woman and her child and begins a conversation with them, o nly to realise after a few minutes that they might be his own estranged wife and son; he encounters figures from his distant past who he hasn’t seen in years, and who have no logical reason for being here; and he meets other people who could be real or could be versions of himself at different stages in his life.
One way of looking at it, I suppose, is that the central character suffers from a form of short-term memory loss (a la the protagonist in the film Memento). But that explanation doesn’t even begin to provide the key to all of The Unconsoled’s mysteries. Ishiguro plays with time and space: a porter delivers a 4-page monologue during an elevator ride that should have taken no more than a few seconds; a hotel employee takes Ryder to the "annexe" which turns out to be a ramshackle hut atop a hill, several minutes’ drive from the hotel; after an exhausting day, Ryder goes to sleep at what seems a perfectly reasonable hour, only to be woken a few minutes later so he can "see to the next item on the agenda". On a conventional plane, the book just doesn’t hold together. This is indeed a nightmare of dislocation, as a reviewer put it.
And yet, remarkably enough, Ishiguro’s themes shine through this confused tapestry. This very enigmatic book is, among other things, about the unrealistic, often debilitating expectations parents have of their children, the demands of a life lived in the public glare, and the myopia that allows people to substitute superficial rewards for the things that really matter (in this context, the novel’s ending, with Ryder happily regarding a sumptuous buffet laid out in front of him in a city tram, blew me away).
Despite my own fascination with this book, I can understand others not getting drawn into it the way I was. Persusing it the other day, I realised that entire passages are very frustrating (from a structural point of view, you have to be at least a little interested in surrealism, otherwise the irritation level is very high). I also have this theory that if it’s the first Ishiguro you read, you’ll hate it. Besides, the themes have to appeal to you, otherwise you’ll be left cold. (Something I haven’t mentioned about the book, incidentally, is that it is also very very funny in parts. But that, again, is if you get drawn into its very strange world.)
Ishiguro publishes a new novel once every five years on average. His next, titled Never Let Me Go (sounds like a Mills & Boon, wot?), is due in March 2005. Come February you’ll find me camping outside the nearest IBH warehouse with blankets, hot-water bottles and a (considerably) silly grin on my face.