Why Kazuo Ishiguro deserves Nobel Prize in Literature
No other writer has done so much with so little by way of conventional authorial pyrotechnics.
- Total Shares
Last year's Nobel Prize for Literature wasn't so much an announcement as a shock, the rippling after-effects of which would last for days, weeks, months later. After Bob Dylan was announced as the Reluctant Laureate, there was much righteous hand-wringing and a small section of over-the-top celebrations. His allegedly SparkNotes-driven lecture was another event in itself. It seemed we'd never see the end of this saga, not until the next choice came along.
And what an inspired choice it is for Kazuo Ishiguro is not the most glamorous of authors, although all that will change swiftly now.
Born in Japan, Ishiguro grew up in the UK, after his family moved there when he was only five years old. Both these war-haunted countries are forced to confront their past - and future - within much of his early work. In An Artist of the Floating World, ageing Japanese painter Masuji Ono (now hated because of creating pro-government propaganda art during WWII) comes to terms with the guilt that his generation didn't quite own up to: the guilt of condemning their innocent children to a "post-war" existence.
It's very easy to say that the Nuremburg defence ("I was only following orders") is hollow and contemptible. It is far more difficult to negotiate the situation when the "offender" is your father, your grandfather or the kindly old gent from next door who'd fumble around with oil paints while you played in the backyard.
In the celebrated Remains of the Day, too, this name-and-shame business is at the heart of the matter. The protagonist Stevens-the-butler receives word that his clueless but essentially good-hearted former employer, Lord Darlington, has died a lonely and bitter man after being "outed" as a pro-Nazi aristocrat. In the film version, a Merchant-Ivory production, Hugh Grant played a priceless little role as Lord Darlington. There was much melancholic grace to be found in those big, dumb eyes, even as Anthony Hopkins, playing Stevens, delivered a typically tour de force performance.
Stevens is perhaps the most classically stoic character in modern-day literature, the Marcus Aurelius of butlers. His employer is not worthy of his endless devotion, but he is devoted nevertheless. Even his budding romance with Miss Kenton the housekeeper is mostly sub-textual: nothing is admitted before her, no quarter given to emotion, no weakness betrayed, no matter what the cost (and it proves to be a heavy one).
I distinctly remember reading both of these novels, in handsome, plastic-covered Faber hardback editions, when I was 15 - and had the good fortune to live within striking distance of the excellent British Council Library in Ranchi. My father was bemused at my choices, as ever he was, especially because to him, Remains of the Day read, looked (it had a giant pocket watch on its cover), and even (or so he claimed) smelt like the Most Boringly British Novel of All Time, a curious choice for a youngster neck-deep in Asimov, Wyndham and Stephen King only weeks earlier. But I had a hunch, and persisted. Not that he ever put his foot down in these matters, except the one time he snatched away The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins. (If you're reading this, dad, I told you so!)
Ishiguro's strongest novel, for me, remains The Unconsoled, his fourth novel, published in 1995. I read this novel in college, after reading this excellent appraisal by Jai Arjun Singh, in which he called the book "one of the best, purest examples of surrealist art". I devoured the book in a week where I skipped quite a few classes: I was helplessly hooked.
One particular passage, wherein two people are literally on an elevator to nowhere (read the book to understand), haunted me in particular, not just for its metaphoric potential, but also for its straight-up weirdness. No other writer, I felt, had done so much with so little by way of conventional authorial pyrotechnics. Later, I would discover Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and then George Saunders and I understood that Ishiguro was in this select club of writers who did not depend on 'difficult' words at all, that his craft lay in the interstices of language, in the necessary and fertile gap between intent and articulation, between articulation and comprehension.
In recent years, Ishiguro has surprised us with an experimental output: both Never Let Me Go (2005) and his latest, The Buried Giant, have genre fiction sensibilities.
The former was nominated for a science fiction award while the latter is a sprawling, enthralling period fantasy/drama. This makes me very, very happy indeed. The literary utopia most of us bookish nerds are looking for is a land free of genre hang-ups, free of judging eyes punishing you for reading vampire novels, free of the caste system of "literary" and "popular" fiction. And a Nobel laureate whose last novel was called Game of Thrones with a conscience by The Guardian can only hasten the arrival of this promised era.