Othering Ourselves

Hazy memories and complicit passivity allow Ishiguro’s characters to construct a protective outsider status.

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Kazuo Ishiguro speaks in Stockholm.
Kazuo Ishiguro in Stockholm

Nationality dominates in discussions of Kazuo Ishiguro. Moving to Britain at the age of six, he was brought up in a Japanese speaking household, at once an outsider in his adopted home but also cut off from his birth country.

Indeed, Ishiguro’s imaginative vision of Japan forms the setting of his early works, the haunting A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986). Etsuko, the protagonist of A Pale View of Hills, is, like Ishiguro, a Japanese immigrant to Britain, who retreats into her memories of her homeland after her daughter Keiko commits suicide. Place looms large in the novel: the very absence of Etsuko’s adopted home from most of the novel is significant, Ishiguro implying that it is Keiko’s failure to place down roots in Britain that ultimately leads to her death. By the close, Etsuko resignedly admits, ‘I knew all along. I knew all along she wouldn’t be happy over here.’

Yet while A Pale View of Hills clearly borrows its setting from Ishiguro’s own life, in other ways it appears to bear little resemblance to his own experiences as an immigrant. Ishiguro did not return to Japan, after all, for nearly thirty years after he left, and has persistently insisted that stylistically his work owes little debt to Japanese literature. In fact, there are striking comparisons to be drawn between Ishiguro’s own work and those of Japanese writers, both contemporary and past, yet he can hardly be regarded as a part of the Japanese literary canon. Indeed, were Ishiguro to write under a pseudonym, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that this is the writer who has lived their entire life in Britain.

Rather than seeing outsider status as a purely external imposition, Ishiguro explores marginalised ‘otherness’ through a preoccupation with introspection, memory, and its (lack of) reliability.

This is highlighted by Ishiguro’s focus on social turning points. Both A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World are set in the immediate post-war era of Japan, a time of rapid social and economic change. In The Remains of the Day (1989), both Stevens’ remembered past, interwar Britain, and his present, the late 1950s, can be considered moments of acute social transformation. While Stevens acknowledges changes in his present time, mourning declining standards and his reduced staff at Darlington Hall, the 1930s in his memory are frozen in time. Nostalgia subtly reduces it to a dreamlike caricature of antiquated gentlemen influencing politics from country houses, a world that is in fact vanishing before Stevens’ own eyes. Similarly, in Ishiguro’s latest work, The Buried Giant (2015), the protagonists are an elderly couple whose collective amnesia, fondly titled ‘the mist’, blinds them to most details of their past.

Marginalisation as psychological phenomena is further explored through the passivity of many of Ishiguro’s protagonists. In A Pale View of Hills, Etsuko’s sense of guilt and responsibility for the death of her daughter is transmitted to another mother, whose daughter appears to echo Keiko. Whereas Stevens in The Remains of the Day has – at times comically – an exaggerated sense of his own importance as a butler, his position is nevertheless one of an unknowing performer, mistaking himself for an actor yet passively accepting his role. Indeed, the horror of Never Let Me Go (2005) comes from Kathy’s unquestioning acceptance of her role as an organ donor. Here there is a striking comparison with Haruki Murakami’s works, the protagonists of which, like Ishiguro’s, often appear more as observers than agents; it links also to classical Japanese poetry’s emphasis on acceptance that our fates are out of our hands.

What makes this self-marginalisation all the more complex in Ishiguro’s work is the persistency with which characters return to the topic of their occupation. Both Kathy and Stevens are driven by a deep conviction that what they do matters, yet as drivers of plot they appear to do almost nothing. Meanwhile the protagonist of An Artist of the Floating World, Masuji Ono, an aged painter struggles to accept responsibility for his past actions during the Second World War.

What Ishiguro appears to suggest, therefore, is that we subconsciously marginalise ourselves in the account of our own lives. But why? Stevens’ failure to confront the political extremism of his master, Lord Darlington, is to his mind justified by his status as a servant. Similarly, Kathy comes to terms with her fate by emphasising the importance of her work as a donor, which in reality reduces her humanity. Both characters belong to an underclass yet what is most striking is the way in which they subconsciously reinforce that status by attempting to dignify it. However Ishiguro does not close his novels on irredeemably bleak notes. The end of The Remains of the Day is intentionally ambiguous: Stevens announces his intention to surprise his new master, though whether this represents an attempt to escape the confines of his social status, or just another attempt to adjust to the changing expectations of his new master, is left for the reader to decide.

Characters make outsiders of themselves. This is not because they attempt to impersonally scrutinise their own lives, but rather because the very impossibility of interrogating one’s past so dispassionately leads us to subconsciously rewrite our own memories. Paradoxically, introspection and memory to not bring great knowledge of oneself, but rather turn ourselves into strangers. Ishiguro, by making transformation a powerful backdrop, suggests that the antidote is to embrace the impermanence of our worlds – even if this is usually ignored by his protagonists.

Interestingly, temporariness forms the central theme of The Tale of the Heike, one of the greatest classics of fourteenth-century Japanese literature. Yet Ishiguro has a very timely point to make: that we must acknowledge change.

His own experience as an immigrant, somewhat caught in a cultural limbo, is best seen as a starting point for his discussions of marginalisation and ‘otherness’. Just like the young Ishiguro, the characters in his early works are bound in the world of an imagined Japan, which cuts them off from the here and now. With this in mind, the quintessentially British Stevens’ nostalgia for the peak of his career at Darlington Hall, and Kathy’s embellished memories of an idyllic childhood at an English boarding school, are potent reminders: we ourselves can be subconsciously complicit in creating a psychological outsider status.

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