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Ishiguro in the LRB

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Kazuo Ishiguro, who has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in the London Review of Books in 1985:

The British and the Japanese may not be particularly alike, but the two races are exceedingly comparable. The British must actually believe this, for why else would they be displaying such a curious desperation to deny it? No doubt, they sense that to look at Japanese culture too closely would threaten a long-cherished complacency about their own. Hence the energy expended on sustaining an image of Japan as a place of fanatical businessmen, of hara-kiri and sci-fi gadgetry. Books, articles and television programmes focus on whatever is most extreme and bizarre in Japanese life; the Japanese people may be viewed as amusing or alarming, expert or devious, but they must above all be seen to be non-human. While they remain non-human, their values and ways will remain safely irrelevant. No wonder the British are so fond of the ‘inscrutability’ of Japanese faces.

Anthony Thwaite described the narrator of The Remains of the Day (1989) as both ‘Ishiguro’s Prufrock’ and ‘an English version of that classic Japanese figure, the ronin, the master-less retainer who is still tied by firm bands to the master’.

‘The shame of being on the wrong side of history,’ Amit Chaudhuri wrote in 1995: ‘this is what Kazuo Ishiguro’s first three novels have been about.’

It is not a condition that has been written about a great deal in English, because the English language, ever since ‘literature’ was created and taught, has been on the winning side; and the once-colonised, who have been writing in English for about the past forty years, have always had the moral rightness of their exploitedness, and the riches of their indigenous cultures, to fall back on. But for the story of the personal implications of national shame or guilt in English, one has to turn to a Japanese writer, Ishiguro, and to his mentors, the Japanese filmmakers.

Adam Mars-Jones was less impressed by Ishiguro’s cinematic effects when he wrote of a scene in The Buried Giant (2015) that ‘it’s all done with the slickness of a Hollywood special effect.’

Patrick Parrinder described An Artist of the Floating World (1986) as ‘a beautiful and haunting novel’, in which ‘the past has its guilty secrets.’

And here’s Frank Kermode on the ‘painful magnificence’ of The Unconsoled (1995):

The central character … is a distraught musician, a man who bears an intolerable burden of responsibility, all the more hopeless in that he tends to miss appointments by hours, gets lost in the city he is under obligation to save from disaster, and cannot find a piano on which to prepare his unbearably important performance.

The effect is of tragic farce, and Ishiguro, unlike his characters, works well in that destructive setting. The Unconsoled is a sort of novelist’s nightmare – a man confronted by an impossible world, faced at every turn with new temptations and invitations to disaster, seeking wild solutions to the problem of producing, in this insane context, a performance that must be perfect even if the conductor has recently suffered the amputation of his wooden leg and needs to support himself on the podium with an ironing-board as a crutch.


  1. RobotBoy says:

    The Chaudurai quote is one of those vague expansive claims that seems profound at first glance but upon reflection contains only a perfect vacuum. For ‘the personal implications of national shame or guilt in English’… ‘from being on the wrong side of history…’ one need look no further than, say, ‘Ulysses’ or any number of other works of Irish literature.
    Not that Ishiguro is an awful choice for the Nobel. At least they picked a writer this time.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      Joyce and other Irish writers would be among those Chaudhuri (that’s how to spell his name) calls the ‘once-colonised’. (Though admittedly his timeframe could go back further than 40 years.)

      • RobotBoy says:

        Apologies as to the misspelling. I saw it after I hit submit and there’s no edit function.
        i realized that Chaudhuri’s claim about the ‘once colonised’ applied to the Irish; I just found it utterly specious.

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