An Ishiguro Thing

A Pale View of Hills was first published in 1982. It’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel, and it’s noteworthy because it contains the elements that made him an eventual winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As with his more accomplished novels, The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and Klara and the Sun, not much happens in A Pale View of Hills. Not much of importance is said. But Mr. Ishiguro is fascinating because the things that aren’t said and the things that don’t happen are the things that matter. They leave the reader unsettled – asking uncomfortable questions.

The novel opens in the English countryside in the late 1970s where Etsuko is trying to cope with her first-born daughter’s recent suicide. A visit by her younger daughter, Niki, and the memories of her deceased daughter, Keiko, draw Etsuko back to her life in Japan a few years after the second world war ended. At the time Etsuko was pregnant with Keiko and living in Nagasaki, which is just emerging from the death and destruction caused by the atomic bomb. Society is experiencing a huge upheaval as the Americans “introduce” democracy to a country buried under rubble. As Etsuko’s father-in-law, who represents Japan’s traditional order, puts it: “now instead there’s all this talk of democracy. You hear it whenever people want to be selfish, whenever they want to forget obligations.”

The younger generation does not long for the old ways that led them into a disastrous war. “[S]uch things are in the past now, and there is little to be gained in going over them here.” They would rather think of the future. But the past, much like the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Keiko’s suicide, refuses to be ignored.

While in Japan, Etsuko is constantly looking forward. She hopes to be a loving mother, because being a mother is what “makes life truly worthwhile.” Back in England, Niki disagrees. “I can’t think of anything I’d like less.” With Keiko’s suicide always hovering just within sight, motherhood is not a comforting prospect. “The horror of that image has never diminished, but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one’s own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.” That’s unsettling. But is it a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing? Well played, Mr. Ishiguro, well played.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

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