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

Klara and the Sun – Lifted AF

Kazuo Ishiguro is a talented creator of worlds that seem gentle and quaint: manor homes in a countryside of lush greenery, fancy boarding schools surrounded by gardens, or gentile houses overlooking bucolic meadows. The reader gets acclimated to the pleasant surroundings. Starts to enjoy the scenery. Notices how the birds chirp with fine English accents. Then it dawns on the reader that the main character has devoted his life to serving an obnoxious Nazi sympathizer (The Remains of the Day). Or the primary characters are clones whose organs will soon be harvested – a fate they passively accept (Never Let Me Go). Or parents subject their children to genetic editing, even though the process may be deadly, so the children can get into elite colleges – unless, of course, they die first (Klara and the Sun). The horror creeps up quietly. Then, suddenly, the monster is in the reader’s lap, licking the reader’s ear, demanding that its messy diaper be changed. And the reader wonders, how did I get here? Even though the clues were there all along.

Klara and the Sun takes place in an alternate reality of the United States, but the reader will find much that is familiar, except (importantly) for the extremely-advanced artificial intelligence. Klara is an artificial friend (think highly-sophisticated robot), and she narrates the story. Artificial friends (AFs) are sold in stores and frequently are purchased to keep teenagers (in well-off families) company. Each AF has a unique set of skills, and Klara’s is her ability to observe and learn. She can empathize.

Klara is selected by Josie, who is 14 years old. However, Josie’s mother has different plans. Klara will be groomed to become much more than an AF – a future that is hinted at when they are still in the store and Josie’s mother directs Klara to mimic Josie’s awkward way of walking. Josie has been “lifted” – a clever euphemism (rhymes with gifted) that sounds so much better than “subjected to genetic editing without having any say about it.” But the process has left her weak and sickly, all of which is manifested by her overly-cautious way of walking.

Not all children are lifted. Some parents can’t afford it. Other parents find it too risky. Though the story takes place in an alternate reality, the reader can take great comfort knowing that disingenuous platitudes still exist – as does the desperate need to pretend that social inequities don’t exist. Parents in this alternative United States still tell themselves and each other that not all children need to be lifted – that “there are all kinds of ways to lead a successful life.” No doubt this is as true as it has ever been, but we can’t help thinking all these parents spouting platitudes had their children lifted.

But why are we talking about children? The book is not called Klara and Josie – a hip new indie duo. It is Klara and the Sun for a reason – just, maybe, not a very good one – though the reader could argue (based upon the ending) that Klara’s relationship with the Sun is the key relationship in the story. First, the Sun is essential to everyone – duh. But it is especially important to Klara, because she runs on solar power. In a book where no humans express any religious belief, Klara determines that the Sun is a god. She prays to her Sun god to heal Josie. Like any human religious zealot, she commits acts of vandalism to appease her god. And depending on the reader’s point of view, Klara is either rewarded for her faith or deceived by it. But the true dilemma has little to do with religion, so ultimately Klara’s relationship with the Sun is a bit distracting.

As with all his books, Mr. Ishiguro excels at human interactions, and he asks crucial questions in Klara and the Sun. Such as, why are we talking about humans at all, when the story is narrated by a super-cool empathy machine? Are humans all that special when machines can be groomed to replicate them so perfectly? As Josie’s father puts it, “[s]cience has now proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer.” That’s depressing. Fortunately, Klara has a rebuttal. “Mr. Capaldi (an engineer/scientist) believed there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued. He told the Mother he’d searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.”

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

The Remains of the Day and The Dignity of Dedicated Service

In 2017 Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This reminded us of how much we loved his book, The Remains of the Day, which we read many years ago. So we intended (back in 2017) to write a tribute to Mr. Ishiguro celebrating his achievement, but we forgot. Regardless, it is never too late to celebrate great literature, and now is as good a time as any to revisit this work. As an aside, we did not read the book again (why would anyone ever read a book twice?), so everything that follows is based upon our memory. Fortunately, our memory is perfect.

Much has been written about The Remains of the Day. In fact, the book is so well-respected we made it mandatory reading in our 20th Century Bloviated Literature course. Because it is nearly impossible to say anything new about this book, we have decided not to try.

The major theme is the dignity of service or work, as personified by the main character, Jeeves, who served as a butler to a noble Englishman, Lord Nazi Lover. [Note to reader: this was in the 1930s before it was cool to be a Nazi sympathizer]. After the English lord dies, the American hero, Clark Kent, flies in and buys the English manor. Based upon a peculiarity of English law, the butler conveys with the house, and Jeeves now works for Mr. Kent. [Note to reader: it is unclear whether current English law still allows you to buy a manor home with the butler included, but it probably does].

Mr. Kent discovers that Jeeves has not had a vacation since he was 6 years old, so he allows Jeeves to borrow his Rolls Royce (see how nice Americans are) and take a drive in the countryside, which is described sumptuously by Mr. Ishiguro. High jinks then ensue, including Jeeves’ visit with Mrs. Plushbottom, a woman who once worked at the manor house. As the story progresses, we learn that Jeeves may have been in love with Mrs. Plushbottom, but his dignity and his dedication to Lord Nazi Lover prevented him from disclosing this. Then, Jeeves drives back to Mr. Kent and resumes his service.

Mr. Ishiguro does a stellar job of skewering the English elite. And rightfully so. They are pompous, prejudiced, prudish, privileged, and perpendicular. Which then begs the question. Were Jeeves’ many years of dignified service dedicated to a despicable person worth the sacrifice of love and potential happiness? Mr. Ishiguro telegraphs the answer by making that employer a Nazi sympathizer. So the answer, of course, is yes. Nothing in England is more important than sacrificing your personal happiness to devotedly serve a Nazi sympathizer. At least, that’s how we remember the book.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor