Conflicting claims on the literary heritage of Kazuo Ishiguro cannot be resolved when his books are the expression of a transnational literature that does not fully ‘belong’ anywhere, writes Rebecca Suter
On October 5, 2017, the Swedish Academy announced that Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In reporting the news, The Japan Times hailed Ishiguro as ‘the third Japan-born winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, following Yasunari Kawabata in 1968 and Kenzaburo Oe in 1994’.
We may smile at the not-too-subtle attempt to claim this as a success for Japanese literature. Especially in light of the fact that one of Japan’s most renowned contemporary writers, Murakami Haruki, had been listed among the favourite candidates, but failed to win the prize for the third year in a row.
The British press seems just as eager to claim Ishiguro’s literary heritage. One hundred per cent. The Independent reports that ‘spending most of his life in the UK, the 62-year-old has dismissed comparisons to other Japanese authors’.
While amusing, these responses by the press also prompt us to reflect on Ishiguro’s complex cultural belonging, and the way in which it informs his literature.
Body of work
The Nobel Prize announcement caught many by surprise. Ishiguro had not been mentioned among the favourites in the preceding weeks. So far, he was best known for two novels. The Remains of the Day (1989) that won the Man Booker Prize and was turned into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in 1993, and Never Let Me Go (2005), also turned into a movie, starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, in 2010.
Both novels are set in England and feature iconic British settings and characters: a butler in an aristocratic English country house and a group of children in a boarding school, respectively.
A career built on playing with, and often defying, expectations about his ethnicity
Ishiguro’s first two novels, on the other hand, both feature Japanese protagonists and settings.
Ishiguro’s whole career has been built on playing with, and often defying, reader and critic expectations about his ethnicity. Moreover, the author has used this subversion of cultural stereotypes to produce specific narrative effects in his works.
Ishiguro was indeed, as the Japan Times reminds us, born in Japan. Nagasaki to be specific.
He moved to England at the age of five when his father, an oceanographer, was invited to participate in a British government research project. It was originally meant to be a temporary stay, but the family kept extending it indefinitely.
As a result, Ishiguro spoke Japanese at home and grew up reading Japanese books and magazines, thinking of Japan as his homeland, and living with the expectation that he would soon return to Japan. This state of temporary exile and the experience of growing up between two cultures lie at the core of the narrative strategies deployed in his first novels.
A Pale View of Hills (1982) is structured like a series of recollections by Etsuko, a Japanese woman who migrated to the UK in the 1950s. During the course of a week-long visit by Niki, her daughter, Etsuko reminisces about her life in Nagasaki in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, as well as her present life in a small town in England.
In the Nagasaki sections of the novel, the Japanese character of the setting is constantly highlighted: fusuma partitions ‘slide open’ every moment, characters constantly step up and down from tatami mats in the entrance hall of homes, and use chopsticks and bowls when eating.
A play with expectations of ‘Japanese-ness’
This stylistic choice clearly characterises the novel as English, or at least not Japanese. In a Japanese novel, common actions like stepping up and down the tatami or taking one’s shoes off when entering a room are usually taken for granted and not described.
The fact that they are mentioned so often in the text connotes it as written from, or for, a Western eye, in an ironic way.
A similar play with readers’ expectations of ‘Japanese-ness’ can be found in his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986). It takes the form of diary entries by a Japanese painter, Masuji Ono, living in an imaginary Japanese city in the late 1940s.
While the novel is in English, the diary is supposed to be written in Japanese, and indeed the style has a translation-like quality, mimicking structures and expressions of the Japanese language. Yet the original Japanese text for which the novel is a ‘translation’ obviously never existed, as the work was written in English from the start.
This gives the text a playful, postmodern twist and sets the ground for the narrator’s complex reflection on his wartime responsibilities.
As the reader very slowly discovers through the ‘Japanese reticence’ of his account, Ono had produced nationalist propaganda paintings before and during the Second World War. In the changed ideological climate of the Occupation he comes to realize that what was once a source of pride has become an uncomfortable legacy.
The play with reader expectations about ‘Japanese-ness’ reaches its climax with The Remains of the Day. It is not only set in England but, as the author himself noted shortly after its publication, it is ‘more English than the English’.
With his strict code of honour, loyalty, and emotional restraint, the protagonist could function equally well as either an English butler or a Japanese samurai
As Ishiguro explained in an interview with Allan Vorda and Kim Herzinger (Mississippi Review, 1991): ‘I’m using that as a kind of shock tactic of this relatively young person with a Japanese name and a Japanese face who produces this extra-English novel’.
Indeed, the oblique language of the first-person narrator, James Stevens, his obsession with professionalism, and his loyalty to his employer, Lord Darlington, all lend the character firmly an ‘ultra-English’ quality.
Through two different paradigms
At the same time, especially when we read the novel in connection with the previous two, we can interpret the same reticence, professionalism, and faithfulness as ‘Japanese’ elements. With his strict code of honour, loyalty to his master, and emotional restraint, Stevens could function equally well as either an English butler or a Japanese samurai.
This shows that it is possible to read the same behaviour through two different cultural paradigms, destabilising cultural stereotypes and demonstrating the complexity of culture and identity.
In different ways, the characters’ behaviour in all three novels is related to the cultures they ‘belong’ to, but cannot be just explained away by them.
Ono’s responsibilities towards the War are best understood in the context of pre-war Japan’s ideology, but cannot be reduced to it. And with Stevens, who can be equally interpreted as a traditional English butler and as a modern samurai, the complexity and elusiveness of cultural categories is further highlighted.
Though Ishiguro’s more recent novels, such as Never Let Me Go (2005) and The Buried Giant (2015), are less overtly focused on cultural stereotypes and expectations, these concepts continued to inspire Ishiguro’s questioning of the relationship between reality and perception, memory and agency.
Rather than trying to determine how Japanese or how British he is, considering Ishiguro’s transnational, culturally hybrid position can help us truly understand this complex and fascinating author.
In the words of the Swedish Academy, ‘in novels of great emotional force (Ishiguro) has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world’.
Featured image: Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel Laureate for Literature Photo: Time Magazine Source: Wikimedia Commons