Outrageous Game

Frank Kermode

  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
    Faber, 263 pp, £16.99, March 2005, ISBN 0 571 22411 3

All of Kazuo Ishiguro’s six novels are first-person narratives. For the most part the voices of these narrators are quiet, civilised, rather formal. This is so whether the speaker is the obsessive butler of the most famous of the books, The Remains of the Day (1989); or one of the somewhat demented heroes of The Unconsoled (1995) or When We Were Orphans (2000); or the Japanese, guilty or exiled, of the first two books, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986). Indeed this way of speaking seems appropriate to Japanese conversation, to the talk of a society in which manners are always important, and in which they might sometimes take precedence over candour. The characters do a lot of deferring and apologising, and even when they aren’t expressly said to be bowing gently to one another you can easily imagine they are.

This new book, Never Let Me Go, is different in one respect: it does have a first-person narrative but abandons the formality of the previous speakers in favour of a familiar, chatty style no doubt thought right for the character of a young woman of the place and date specified, namely ‘England, late 1990s’. Whatever the virtues of this authorial decision, the texture of the writing becomes altogether less interesting, and this may be a reason why the novel seems to be, though only by the standards Ishiguro has set himself, a failure. I open it quite at random and read the first sentences to meet my eye:

What with one thing and another, I didn’t get a chance to talk to Tommy for the next few days. Then one lunchtime I spotted him on the edge of the South Playing Field practising his football . . . I went over and sat down on the grass behind him, putting my back against a fence post. This couldn’t have been long after that time I’d shown him Patricia C’s calendar and he’d marched off, because I remember we weren’t sure how we stood with each other.

The story, slightly science-fictional but set in the recent past, is told by a woman 31 years old and looking back to the time between the present and her adolescence. Everything is expertly arranged, as it always is in Ishiguro, but this dear-diary prose surely reduces one’s interest.

We begin in a strange school where the pupils, though kindly and intelligently treated by their ‘guardians’, are quite cut off from the rest of the world. The guardians are severe only on the subject of health, and particularly on smoking. Perhaps by way of compensation the boys and girls don’t have the usual adolescent worries about sex: the girls can’t conceive and so the guardians leave the young people to get on with it, merely warning them about disease and advising them that sex can have difficult emotional consequences.

Indeed sex, though they sometimes want it quite badly, usually amounts to little more than a way of being friends, or practising for more serious partnerships later on. Instead of fantasising about it they construct a mythology of rumours about other things – about the lives of the guardians or the activities of certain mysterious benefactors, or the unusual conditions that will prevail in their later lives.

When they are told they have been conceived and hatched as clones, they have that sense familiar from sex education classes – that they already knew, that they’d somehow heard the news before without taking it in. They had been given existence solely that they might serve as depositories of anatomical spare parts for surgical use. Now they develop a version, appropriate to their condition, of the family romance: a futile curiosity about the model or source from which they were cloned. On leaving the rather idyllic life of their school – a sort of clones’ Bryanston – they become either ‘donors’ or the ‘carers’ charged with looking after the donors, who rarely manage to make more than three ‘donations’ before they ‘complete’.

The sadness of the fate of these children is illustrated by the song which gives the novel its title. The narrator loves an old tape by a singer called Judy Bridgewater. In the cover picture Judy is smoking a cigarette, which is why the tape has to be hidden away. She sings a number called ‘Baby, baby, never let me go’, which our narrator chose, as a child, to misinterpret as the song of a woman happy with her baby, though fearing it might get ill or be taken away. Once when she is dancing to this tape, carrying a pillow as a token baby, she is observed by an unaccountably distressed adult; she will explain her grief much later. The tape disappears, perhaps stolen by a rather devious friend; later another copy is found in a Norfolk shop. Norfolk is the ‘lost corner’ of England and serves, in the school myth, as the name for the lost property room, but the real county is regarded, half seriously, as the place where lost things will turn up.

The woman who tells the story does so with a reticence imposed by her apparent limitations as a writer, yet is capable in the end of registering, or anyway drawing attention to, the plight of these victims, demonstrated by the violent rages of one of the characters and the simple exclamation – ‘You poor creatures’ – of another. Ishiguro is fundamentally a tragic novelist; there is always a disaster, remote but urgent, imagined but real, at the heart of his stories. The dateline of this book – ‘England, late 1990s’ – cannot mean that the cloning of children for these purposes was practised at that time, only that we live as if, having developed promising techniques, we may also find the will to use them; so that what we need by way of response is not the patience and kindness of the guardians or the acquiescence of the victims but an experience of pity and terror, however diluted by the limitations of this narrator and our own imaginations.

In A Pale View of Hills, his first novel, Ishiguro keeps the reader in touch with disaster: the bombing of Nagasaki on the historic scale, and, on the domestic scale, the suicide of the narrator’s daughter and the strained, altered relations between men and women, parents and children. A culture involving obsolete obligations of honour and ostentatious demonstrations of civility is giving way to coarser American influences: ‘Here was a system we’d nurtured and cherished for years. The Americans came and stripped it, tore it down without a thought . . . And the Japanese welcomed it all. Welcomed it with a lot of talk about democracy.’ But the complainant, confronted with his own dubious record under the old regime, can no more defend his honour than he can turn back the American tide.

Ishiguro’s foreboding, his imagination of disaster, is not simply political or historical. It seems there is a sort of calamity built into the texture of life. A mysterious, alienated little girl is almost the central character of his first book. Her devious, unsatisfactory mother, the mistress of an American, exploits her friend the kind narrator, and at one point, rather remarkably, intrudes into her narration so that the two of them are for a moment only one. Such violations of novelistic convention are of course deliberate. There will be more surprises of the kind, especially in The Unconsoled, but from the outset the reader is sure that the author is in control, and this security enables him, in the later book, to be even more adventurous.

An Artist of the Floating World is also set in a postwar Japan where the cities and the lives of the survivors are being rebuilt. This time the speaker is a retired artist, locating himself in the opening sentence at the Bridge of Hesitation, as it were pausing, like Japan and its citizens, between two worlds. The Floating World is the old pleasure district, where traditional artists, though content with their educational hierarchies and the deference owed to their teachers, lead their version of the vie de bohème: ‘One could get drunk there with pride and dignity.’ But the district is now squalid, unrecognisable; the bars closed long ago, the girls departed, and the pleasures remain only in the memory of old men.

Matters are different among the young, observed as they stream, in white shirt-sleeves, from the glass-fronted offices that have replaced the bars. The old man accepts them as a portent of his country’s changed yet satisfactory future. People of a certain age cannot avoid having had a certain past in the militant Japan that is now for the most part renounced, and the old painter says he will accept some of the responsibility ‘for the terrible things that happened to this nation of ours’. Nevertheless a composer who wrote popular wartime songs feels obliged to commit suicide. Only the young need not feel guilt. In their lives patriotism can take a more innocent form. You have to consider whether this is an opinion or an irony.

Some of the old ways persist: families still make careful inquiries before agreeing to a marriage, each side being bound to investigate the soundness of the other, in the past as well as the present. (If necessary they hire private detectives.) As for modern children, they now ignore stories about samurai and shout for the Lone Ranger. Yet even they know how to be polite. Politeness survives and can sometimes be cruel. Getting rid of an unwelcome person you may say, courteously but firmly: ‘You should not detain yourself further from your other business.’ That is the voice of this writer’s Japan – perhaps, in a way, the voice of Ishiguro.

The Remains of the Day is, of course, much the most familiar of the novels. As the wandering butler speaks – a perfect piece of ventriloquism – he unwittingly exposes injustice, folly, even treachery not seen as such, at the heart of the English upper class in a prewar world he admires. Some of the success of the book must be due to the humour arising from the disparity between the butler’s language and the conditions of which, by its very nature, it gives a falsified report. That he is travelling, ineptly, in his employer’s grand car is in itself emblematic of his situation in life. Subtle though it undoubtedly is, this is the easiest of the novels, as its popular success testifies.

Almost as if to reject the rewards of such a success, Ishiguro next produced The Unconsoled, a baffling book about bafflement. In one sense it is an outrageous game, announcing fidelity to novelistic conventions in order to violate them. Like various tracks, streets and corridors in the story, it seems endless. The characters are clearly that – characters in a novel – yet they not only speak in character but in doing so impede the progress of the main story, and defy and delay extremely important undertakings of the central figure and narrator, Ryder. They have interests that only appear to serve his, as their city only appears to offer him the means of fulfilling his plans.

He is a man with an intolerable and ever increasing burden of responsibility who never gets anything done, who gets lost pretty well every time he steps out of doors, who cannot find out where he is supposed to be or when, or how to get there; a scrupulous man who misses appointments by hours, a weary man who is awakened as soon as he falls asleep. A woman he encounters accidentally turns out to be his wife, and the boy with her, who has a problem with adults, is his son. He bumps, unsurprised, into old friends. Arriving at his hotel, he meets a porter, deeply devoted to the establishment, who insists that despite his age he must carry three suitcases. The porter turns out to be, or turns into, his father-in-law. The manager of the hotel is a great talker but of little use; he has a son already a virtuoso pianist but refuses to admit it. Like everybody else he demands favours of Ryder, and these add to the already impossible burdens he carries. He is a great pianist who must give a recital, even though he cannot find a piano on which to prepare his performance. He must also save the city, which has somehow fallen into a state of crisis. He is expecting his aged parents to arrive by horse-driven coach, and, when he happens to think of them, is anxious about their welfare.

Everybody in this city seems to have an informed interest in very modern music, though the names of the composers they mention are unknown to the world outside. Ryder is acknowledged to be a great man as well as a world-class musician, but despite his magical acquaintance with their most private thoughts he can accomplish nothing with these people, or in this place. Everything is either next door or impossibly far away. His hotel room turns out to be one he has occupied before. At one point he leaves the little boy, Boris, in a café and rushes off on some quest. After giving an obscure but passionate speech about modern music he remembers that the café in which he has delivered this address is next door to the one where he left the forgotten boy, who now leads him on a bizarre search for his mother’s apartment. Left in a hut containing an upright piano, Ryder hears from nearby the sound of the conductor Brodsky digging a grave for his favourite cat.

At last Ryder makes the impossibly impeded, belated journey to the concert hall, and is almost there when he finds his way blocked by an impassable wall. His response to this setback is to go to a Hungarian café frequented by hotel porters. He undertakes to defend their cause in his important, city-saving speech. Then he dances with them, then he sleeps.

In a truly remarkable scene – illustrating the comic possibilities of this kind of writing – he comes once more upon the conductor Brodsky, who has been knocked over by a car. A passing surgeon, wishing to help, laments his lack of equipment, but Ryder opens a car boot and finds him a hacksaw, with which he amputates the old man’s leg. (‘It might be a little painful.’) The operation has surprisingly little effect on the conductor’s health, and he makes his way to the concert hall. As it turns out, he had a wooden leg and that is what the surgeon has cut off. Lacking it, Brodsky has some difficulty on the podium, but supports himself by using a folding ironing-board as a crutch.

Enough: these allusions to the novel can only confuse in the wrong way. The effect is very like a dream; and the shade of Kafka, who could also be funny, hangs over the scene. Struggling, hopelessly and anxiously late, towards an end of sorts, burdened by his task, self-imposed yet steadily increased by others, in yet not of the society he must save, constantly misled, negligent of his family, tending to find himself not where he needs to be and compelled to do something not to his purpose – Ryder’s tale is an artist’s nightmare, the threat of contingency, of a world in which he or she must achieve great things but, as things are, things that are beyond his competence. I see this book as a sort of super-novel in which a failed novelist, urgently aware of his responsibilities yet lost, failing, is betrayed by the trivialities that interfere with his overwhelming need to remake the world, in this case by the treacherous means of writing a novel. I have not succeeded in explaining that this is a wonderful book.

In When We Were Orphans the narrator is a famous detective who must, by finding things out, solve an enormous problem concerning not only the disappearance of his parents in the Shanghai of the 1930s but, roughly speaking, the fate of the world. Here again are the impudently improbable meetings, the quite implausible coincidences, but the atmosphere is now rather less vague. Nothing of this could really have happened, but it is represented as if it did, as if the detective’s story were as ‘real’ as the Japanese attack on Shanghai. In an Ian Fleming-like coup de théâtre a trusted uncle turns out to be the head of an opium smuggling organisation. A close childhood friend, now a wounded soldier in the invading army, is met and cared for.

Since the climax of the action occurs during the Kuomintang defence of Shanghai some rather specific accounts of the fighting are called for. Nevertheless, Banks, the detective, can address a random crowd in a manner much like the butler’s in The Remains of the Day, or Ryder’s in The Unconsoled: ‘Let me say that I would not be here now if I were not optimistic about my chances of bringing this case, in the very near future, to a happy conclusion.’ At which point a jazz orchestra strikes up. We are in a world quite like that of The Unconsoled, but in this case a more powerful version of reality keeps interfering with the dream. In the end the detective does find his mother, but the moment of recognition that good plots require is a negative one, and so is the result of his undertaking to settle the world crisis that is ripening in the East. On the whole plot wins; this is not a reprise of the novelist’s nightmare which is The Unconsoled. That is the book which gives one the fullest idea, vague though it is and sometimes alarming, of the world of Ishiguro.