Portrait

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Quiet Englishman

Kazuo Ishiguro
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The art and attitude of Kazuo Ishiguro, the new Nobel laureate in Literature

BOB DYLAN’S NOBEL Prize for literature proved to the world that the Swedish committee could still pull a rabbit (nay, a pony) out of its esteemed hat. This year’s announcement that English author Kazuo Ishiguro had been awarded the prize is a surprise, but not a shock. He did not feature among the top bets. Kenyan professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the favourite, with odds of 4/1, followed by Japan’s Haruki Murakami with 5/1 and Canada’s Margaret Atwood with 6/1. While the bookies once again read it all wrong, 62-year-old Ishiguro’s fans are sure to exult.

Over the last three decades, Ishiguro has amassed a loyal fan base for his writing. Leading publications had declared, ‘At 34, Ishiguro’s place in the literary firmament was already secure and he felt as if he’d only just begun.’ His work is that unique combination of beautiful and spooky. In the Man Booker-winning novel The Remains of the Day (1989), he slows down time in a way that you travel not only into the insular world of post-war England, but also into the heart of the English butler, Stevens. With perfect poise, the novel pits the dignity of the individual against loyalty to the superior. In an interview in 2015, Ishiguro said that the thematic architecture of the novel rested on the idea of ‘dignity’. On one hand, ‘dignity’ in a butler is about leading a thoroughly professional life, at the cost of even love and loving. On the other hand, dignity is simply about having control over one’s life. The glory of The Remains of the Day is that it is not just Stevens’ story. Ishiguro shows us that we are all butlers in the truest sense. We shuffle along life, working hard and working well, in the belief that we are contributing to something ‘greater’, even if we have no idea what that is. Our only hope is that the authority above us, be it a boss, country or even god, will use our contribution to a noble end. When we start to question what this ‘end’ might be, that is when cracks appear in the mirror.

While the Nobel committee made note of the ‘great emotional force’ of his novels which ‘has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world’, Ishiguro has always maintained a great humility about his work. He has said, “When I created Stevens’ voice, that was the first time I became conscious of my voice as a writer. For my first and second novel, I was writing my prose in the best way I could. I do not have that ability that some people like [Salman] Rushdie or [Martin] Amis have—to come up with brilliant lines. I struggle to write decent English. I wasn’t trying for anything stylistic.”

Today, Ishiguro can be rest assured that he is considered in the same league as Rushdie and Amis. He is known not for his grandiloquence, but rather a restraint that can reveal big truths. As a novelist, he has shown that ‘genres’ are for the feeble and lily-livered. His early works were ruminations on memory and reckonings with the past, but then he has moved to dystopia and fantasy. If The Remains of the Day took us to England of the 50s, Never Let me Go (2005) entices us into a seemingly benign boarding school which is revealed to be anything but, and his most recent novel The Buried Giant (2015) torpedoed readers into Tolkien territory. Never Let me Go—which tells of human clones being raised to be organ donors—cemented Ishiguro’s reputation as a writer who was both popular and majestic.

The constant theme in all his work is a suspicion that beneath the surface, something is amiss. His measured prose can make even the extraordinary seem just around the next corner.