Beneath the ostensible simplicity in Kazuo Ishiguro’s words lies buried the contours of an emotional volcano waiting to burst open. But Ishiguro never makes that apparent.
When the Nobel Committee announced Kazuo Ishiguro as the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature, the permanent member, Sara Danius, described Ishiguro as being a mix between Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, with Marcel Proust thrown in too. It seemed like an odd description. The latter two giants – Kafka and Proust – are, of course, plastered all over Ishiguro’s works and to any serious reader it isn’t difficult to discern these influences. But why Austen? Is it the texture of manners that are ostensibly draped over an Ishiguro character, like Mr Stevens from his The Remains of the Day? But you get this from Proust too – that quintessential chronicler of bourgeois life and sediment of memories, real and suppressed, which Proust seeks to uncover.
But then, after a moment’s reflection, I realised that there was some truth to the statement after all. In trying to find resonances of Austen within Ishiguro, and at least from Danius’s part, evoking Austen was a rather astute observation.
Firstly, as any new reader reading Ishiguro for the first time would vouch for, is the utter simplicity of his prose. Unlike his great contemporaries – Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and John Banville – an Ishiguro novel doesn’t indulge in linguistic acrobatics, it doesn’t contain stunning and clever word play, or a sentence that arrests the reader’s attention by its very density. I’ll give an example. Sample the opening lines from John Banville’s Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sea:
“They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes.”
And here’s the opening line from Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, the same book which was nominated alongside The Sea, for the Booker, that same year, in 2005:
“My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years. Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do. There are some really good carers who’ve been told to stop after just two or three years. And I can think of one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space. So I’m not trying to boast. But then I do know for a fact they’ve been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too.”
Both the writers grapple more or less with similar themes, like the fluidity of memories, and the hold those memories – reliable and unreliable – has over people, the myriad uncertain ways the suppressed past catches up, and the inability to ever reach a resolution. But Banville’s prose has a certain density that you characterise more with poetry than with prose. Ishiguro’s prose, on the other hand, is simple to the point of banality. His characters describe what they see, and as they see it. Banville’s prose demands the reader’s attention from the very first sentence. Ishiguro is more deceptive. Beneath this ostensible simplicity lies buried the contours of an emotional volcano waiting to burst open. But Ishiguro, the artist, never makes that apparent.
In many ways, this simplicity is also what you find in Austen’s works. Unlike Dickens, whose sentences are onward rolling, unrestrained, like a rolling car with faulty brakes, Austen’s sentences are like those used by a romantic interest on a first date; they charm you with their simplicity, wit and restraint. But long after the date is over, and you have returned to your lonely apartment, the conversation rushes back to you, and in that epiphany you realise the darker undercurrents concealed beneath.
You read Pride and Prejudice, for instance, with a slightly curved smile, as the wit and politeness of Austen’s sentences overtakes you. You revel in Elizabeth Bennett as she recovers from her initial prejudice and sees Darcy for what he is, sans his pride. You laugh over the caricature that is Mr Collins and rue over Charlotte Lucas’s choice. But then, after subsequent re-readings, you realise Lucas becomes a caricature precisely because Bennett and Darcy and their perfect marriage is constructed as a fantasy. There are no fairy tales in real life, there are only endless negotiations and compromise, without an eventual resolution.
Take Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, for example. Mr Stevens, at the outset, appears as we would imagine any British butler – polite, deferential and mannered. Mr Stevens tells us in the beginning that it’s likely he will “undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.” What is this expedition? He wants to go visit his former colleague, Miss Kenton. Juggling in between exploring the relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton, which is characterised by a certain degree of formality, but with strong undertones of mutual attraction, Ishiguro delves into the past and traces Stevens’s relationship also with his former master, Lord Darlington. That latter relationship is marked with an unshakeable loyalty that Stevens has towards Darlington. But Darlington is a German sympathiser and using these elements. Ishiguro maps the hidden cracks beneath Stevens’s composed, polite exterior demeanour: his stern loyalty towards his former master, vis-à-vis the post-war political reality, along with a love for Miss Kenton which he never articulated, allows Ishiguro the space to tease out subtle questions on the irrevocable nature of the past, the various ways regret casts its shadow on the present, the silences of our lives which we do not recognise, but which builds up eventually anyway.
This he revisits with a dreamlike force in his underappreciated masterpiece, The Unconsoled. The novel is about a certain pianist named Mr Ryder, who arrives in an unnamed European city for a concert. But as the novel progresses, we realise that this Mr Ryder is suffering from an unspecified memory loss. He learns things about himself as he prods his way through this phantasmagorical city. He meets a woman and a child in an elevator only to realise that they could just be his long lost wife and son. On one level, the novel is a frustrating read, as it goes on and on. A porter delivers a nearly five page monologue, and Ishiguro writes it in a way as if that monologue must have gone on for hours, when the contents of it could be dealt with within a few minutes.
As if, in slow motion. In many ways, the novel’s eerie quality reminds one of Kafka’s The Castle, where K goes on about his work, although no one knows what that is, and the town that is hostile, again for no specified reason. The sensorium of The Castle is claustrophobic, eerie to the point of being frustrating. Much like Kafka there, Ishiguro deals with inertia of both space and time, as we find the narrator locked up in a world he doesn’t understand, and a world which doesn’t understand him.
In many interviews of Ishiguro we find the writer talk fondly of his love of cinema, a love almost bordering on obsession. Maybe this could be the reason why his novels are what they are. The great American philosopher, Stanley Cavell, who has built his reputation reflecting on cinema, once pointed how the effect of movies is akin to that of a dream. When you awake from a dream, the dream doesn’t come back in full, but rather in unrelated fragments. Cinema is like that. Long after a movie is over, we don’t remember the movie chronologically from start to finish, but only through certain fragmented images.
Ishiguro’s novels are constructed like a movie, which in turn, works like a dream. Long after the book is over, we are haunted by images that make up the book. More than anything else, what we remember are not the plot or the character, but how those images made us feel. Much like a dream does. We are haunted by absences and silences. And that is the essence of an Ishiguro book.
The Nobel Committee, in giving him the 2017 Prize, described his novels as being of “great emotional force”, which “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. There can be no greater encapsulation of this great and utterly original writer’s works. I am glad he finally got his due.
Arnav Das Sharma’s debut novel, Darklands, is being published by Penguin Random House and will be released later this year.