Friday, October 6, 2017

Nobel Prize in Literature for Kazuo Ishiguro

A pleasant surprise: Kazuo Ishiguro, a writer I have been following since his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, in the early 1980s, has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2017. I bought his first novel in the Maruzen bookstore in Kyoto when I was living there as a researcher at Kyoto University. Ishiguro has Japanese roots, as his name tells us, but he is not a Japanese author. Born in Nagasaki in 1954, his parents moved to England when he was five because of his father's job. As they expected to return to Japan at some time, in the home they gave their son a Japanese education, while outside the home he learned to be a perfect Englishman (his speech and mannerisms are absolutely English). As it turned out, the return to Japan never came about and Ishiguro obtained English nationality. But like in my own case (having lived for about half my life and almost all of my working life in Japan), his is a hybrid culture, a mix of Japaneseness and Englishness, and that is what makes his novels so interesting. The butler in The Remains of the Day, for example, with his samurai-like loyalty to a worthless master and total neglect of his private feelings, is only conceivable as a fatal combination of English stiff upper-lip and Japanese self-discipline.

Kazuo Ishiguro writes a spare English style, which is both precise and concise. In this respect he can be compared to South-African Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee (another of my favorite writers whom I appreciate for his conciseness). Another connect is that they both have written dystopian novels and fable-like stories. Ishiguro is a great perfectionist in his craft who to date has written only seven novels and one collection of short stories. Despite the austere style, Ishiguro's novels have a great emotional force and, as the Nobel Committee said, "they uncover the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world." His novels often end on a note of melancholic resignation. He engages with memory and forgetting, identity, mortality, and the influence on us of the major 20th/21st c. conflicts - including the comfortable lies people tell themselves to feel like decent persons although they are in fact morally corrupt.

So Kazuo Ishiguro is a major writer with a clear moral stance. His books are serious literature, despite his popularity thanks to the Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day, and the filming of that novel by James Ivory with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. In fact, his books are not very easy to read. The style is clear enough, but there are always many layers hidden below the narrative which the reader has to uncover in order to be able to appreciate the novel.

The news in Japan was enthusiastic about Kazuo Ishiguro's winning, as he after all was born in Japan and seemed a sort of consolation for the fact that Haruki Murakami again didn't get the prize. The Japanese indeed can celebrate, because Ishiguro is the better writer of the two. This year's Nobel in Literature is an excellent choice (and an intelligent one, as Ishiguro fully deserved it without figuring on any of the outside "bookmaker's" lists) and Kazuo Ishiguro ranks with other recent "deserving" winners as José Saramago, J.M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk and Patrick Modiano - to name a few.