Unlike Kafka

Amit Chaudhuri

  • The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
    Faber, 535 pp, £15.99, May 1995, ISBN 0 571 17387 X

The shame of being on the wrong side of history: 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; not the flamboyant Kurosawa, but the equally gifted Ozu.

Ishiguro’s first two novels were profoundly cinematic in their technique: the subtle shifts of light – the medium out of which, and into which, cinema is created – were interwoven deeply, in these novels, with their subject-matter. Even the title of the first novel, A Pale View of Hills, with its juxtaposition of ‘pale’ and ‘view’, used light to suggest both a visual and an emotional register. ‘It was with interest,’ Ishiguro writes towards the beginning of the novel,

that I listened to those women talking of Sachiko. I can recall quite vividly that afternoon at the tram stop. It was one of the first days of bright sunlight after the rainy season in June, and the soaked surfaces of brick and concrete were drying all around us. We were standing on a railway bridge and on one side of the tracks at the foot of the hill could be seen a cluster of roofs, as if the houses had come tumbling down the slope. Beyond the houses, a little way off, were our apartment blocks standing like four concrete pillars. I felt a kind of sympathy for Sachiko then, and felt I understood something of that aloofness I had noticed about her when I watched her from afar.

In its working and effect, this is fairly typical of the first two novels: light used to suggest movement where there is none (‘as if the houses had come tumbling down the slope’), indicating both the precariousness and preciousness of human habitation in bombed-out Nagasaki. The play of light and shade as the rainy season ends narrates, with great economy, the insecurity and uncertainties of a drifting Japanese urban population in the post-war years. And, in the last sentence, a purely visual sense of distance from a character, brought about as if by the lens of a camera, coincides with an odd but touching intrusion of closeness, kinship and ‘sympathy’.

In An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s most accomplished and moving book, and one of the best novels published in the Eighties, the cinematic effect is used with even greater sensitivity, leading to the creation of a world of subtle perceptual richness unsurpassed by either Ishiguro’s other work or the works of most of his contemporaries. Very near the start of the novel, the narrator Ono describes the house he lives in; it was designed by, and once belonged to, the eminent architect Akira Sugimura. In the following passage, one of his ageing daughters who had sold it to Ono revisits the house after the war; once more, the effect of light lies at the heart of the writing, and is used to convey loss and the passing of time:

The house had received its share of the war damage. Akira Sugimura had built an eastern wing to the house, comprising three large rooms, connected to the main body of the house by a long corridor running down one side of the garden. This corridor was so extravagant in its length that some people have suggested that Sugimura built it – together with the east wing – for his parents, whom he wished to keep at a distance. The corridor was, in any case, one of the most appealing features of the house; in the afternoon, its entire length would be crossed by the lights and shades of the foliage outside, so that one felt one was walking through a garden tunnel. The bulk of the bomb damage had been to this section of the house, and as we surveyed it from the garden I could see Miss Sugimura was close to tears. By this point, I had lost all my earlier sense of irritation with the old woman and I reassured her as best as I could that the damage would be repaired at the first opportunity, and the house would be once more as her father had built it.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in