Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Kazuo Ishiguro

A number of years ago, I attended a reading given by Kazuo Ishiguro, at the late lamented Ruminator Books in St. Paul. Ishiguro wryly observed that some critics had accused him of writing the same book over and over. If one looks at the variety of plot and setting of Ishiguro's works, this assessment seems patently unfair. However, his novels do have notable similarities, in that all feature first-person narration by delusional protagonists. Ishiguro's books are prime examples of the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator, as his characters do not have a clear understanding of what is going on around them, or of how they themselves are perceived by others. Part of the reader's emotional response while reading the novels is frustration that the character is misreading situations and harming him or herself in the process. 

The Remains of the Day

Probably Ishiguro's best known work, on account of the acclaimed 1993 film adaptation, The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, the butler at an English estate, who fails to recognize that his employer is a Nazi sympathizer. He also jeopardizes his own happiness by missing cues that the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, may have feelings for him. The story is bittersweet and heartbreaking, and the film is perhaps one of the best film adaptations of a novel, in its faithfulness to the source material, and because of Anthony Hopkins' sensitive and subtle portrayal of Stevens.

Never Let Me Go

Also made into an acclaimed film, Never Let Me Go follows three young people growing up at an English boarding school. The three form a triangle of love and friendship that shifts over time, and the potential romance between Kathy and Tommy is continually thwarted by the selfish and manipulative Ruth. Below the surface of this coming of age tale is a sinister secret about where the children at the school came from and for what they are intended. Strong acting and direction make the film a fine adaptation, though something is lost in the compression of the early part of the novel. However, the emotionally devastating conclusion is intact.

The Unconsoled

Probably Ishiguro's most challenging and least accessible work, The Unconsoled is a surreal tale of a musician who arrives in an unnamed European city to perform a concert. In the days leading up to the event, he has a series of interactions and experiences that continually morph. While reading it, I was at first frustrated that the story kept shifting and never seemed to go anywhere, until I realized that Ishiguro was attempting (and in my view, succeeding) to depict the non-linear and fragmented nature of a dream state. I have never before or since encountered a writer who was able to convey the true sense and feeling of being in a dream, with out obvious "hidden meanings" that are supposed to inform or foreshadow the main plot. Here the dream is the plot, as much as this novel can be said to have a plot. I remember many critics being baffled by it at the time it came out, and it certainly isn't for everyone. But those willing to try something experimental may find much to admire. 

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