Kazuo Ishiguro, recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature, is the slyest kind of internationalist. Some forms of literary greatness assemble themselves out of specificity, reaching for the eternal by reproducing the experience of living in a particular place at a particular time. Nobelists like Seamus Heaney, Tomas Tranströmer, Toni Morrison, and Alice Munro write out of this impulse, producing the opposite of what the critic Tim Park deplores as “the dull new global novel,” the sort of book that travels smoothly across borders because everything in it can so readily be translated.
But Ishiguro (and Parks counts him among the globalists), finds the very notion of a firm, localized identity treacherous. Born in Nagasaki, Japan, but raised in Britain from the age of 5, he likes to joke about his youthful infatuation with Sherlock Holmes, how he took to imitating the elaborate Victorian manners of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters only to find “people at the time just put this down to my being Japanese.” He worried that his most famous novel, The Remains of the Day, would be viewed as a retread of the elegiac material of his first two books, in which the narrators look back on their lives with melancholy regret at having exercised too much restraint. Instead, because the earlier books were set in Japan and Remains of the Day concerned the recollections of an English butler, his third novel was regarded as a radical departure. Is it any wonder then, that in Ishiguro’s fiction, what we think of as the foundations of identity are more often than not a façade with which we deceive ourselves?
When Ishiguro began his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, he’d planned to make it about a young underclass Cornish mother, the sort of person he met while working a social service job with the homeless in West London. (He also did a pre-collegiate stint as a grouse beater for the Queen Mother at Balmoral Estate in Scotland.) The writing only took wing when he reconceived his narrator as someone less familiar to him: a Japanese housewife. In the writing, he told the Paris Review, “I discovered that my imagination came alive when I moved away from the immediate world around me.” He abandoned the shopworn writing-program mandate to write what you know. Since then, Ishiguro has roamed the novel’s attics and cellars, borrowing furniture from various genres: detective fiction with When We Were Orphans; science fiction with Never Let Me Go; and the chivalric romance and its present-day descendant, fantasy, with 2015’s The Buried Giant.. These are forms of narrative that promise to take us away from the mundane doings that preoccupy realistic fiction. Ishiguro partakes of these genres, yet he never fully enters into them. Instead, he bends them to new purposes. He has a knack for cracking a story open to expose the grief, confusion, and yearning that make people want to tell it.
Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro’s masterpiece and the first great novel of the 21st century. Part medical thriller, part boarding-school adventure, it is narrated by Kathy, whose voice and way of looking at the world are evidently banal. What initially seems like an insuperable aesthetic handicap in the novel’s prose becomes, by the end of the book, one of its most morally powerful elements. Kathy’s situation is anything but average. She and her fellow schoolmates at Halisham are clones, destined, once they reach adulthood, to have their organs harvested until they reach “completion.” Although they cling to the notion that Hailsham* and its residents are something special, Kathy and her friends are not the stuff that dystopian YA heroes are made of. They have no exceptional talents or abilities, no rebellious determination to reject their fate. They are entirely ordinary.
The question underlying much of science fiction is: What makes us human? Never Let Me Go doesn’t attempt an answer, but it does make a study of how we try and fail to define our humanity. Hailsham’s administrators place great emphasis on art classes, believing, it is eventually revealed, that their art projects will demonstrate that the clones have souls. Later, as fate closes in on them, Kathy and the boy she has pined for since childhood become pathetically convinced that exemptions may be granted to clones who can demonstrate that they are truly in love. They cling to the hope that those who can prove themselves superior will somehow be saved. The novel works partly as an examination of the cost of treating people as the means to an end, but by its closing chapters it has grown beyond even that. Hailsham’s students search vainly for their “possibles” (the individuals from whom they have been cloned) just as human beings have always scoured the universe for signs of their creator. And they are far from alone in wanting to know why they must die.
Ishiguro’s most recent novel, The Buried Giant, is set in Arthurian Britain, imagined (with historical accuracy) as a place of primitive, hardscrabble communities rather than ladies in velvet gowns strolling through pennanted castles. The ogres and dragons, however—accepted as one of life’s common hazards by the novel’s characters—are quite real. This is a cryptic, recalcitrant novel, even for Ishiguro, with scenes that seem to be written for readers who possess a lost narrative language, pregnant with a significance that never quite breaches the surface. The simplicity of Ishiguro’s prose style—admired by some critics and disdained by others—is designed to offer no distraction from the movements of these submerged forces. The novel’s central characters, an older peasant couple, learn that their land has been suffused with a mist that has caused everyone to forget much of their past. This the wife finds unbearable, an erasure of the long history of love she shares with her husband and of the son born from their union. But the country’s fragile peace depends on amnesia; otherwise the Saxons and Britons would once more be slaughtering each other, if only to avenge those who had been slaughtered before.
For all its strangeness, and the dreamlike landscape in which it takes place, The Buried Giant presents the same conundrum as all of Ishiguro’s work. His fiction has been a long, magnificent rumination on the paradoxes of belonging, in the universe and to each other: What we must give up in order to find our place in the world is often the very essence of ourselves. And yet without each other, we would have nothing at all.
Correction, Oct. 6: This post originally misspelled the name of the school in Never Let Me Go.