Reticence and Memory, a Beautiful Duo [Kazuo Ishiguro]

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. On that date, I put him on my to-read list, and since that date I have read every one of his novels. I couldn’t stop. I found the author that wrote the way I wanted to read. At first, I sat back and enjoyed it, getting excited about my next Ishiguro book, intermittently breaking up the normalcy of other books with one I knew would be special. 

I recently finished, A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro’s first and my last of his novels, and ending with his first book made me realize how present his ideas and style are in all his novels. Ishiguro, admittedly, is fascinated by a person’s or people’s relationship to their memory of the past, not the past itself, but how we relate to it through our memories, and how often our memories fail us. In an interview with Malcolm Bradbury, his creative writing teacher that spurred this incredible career into action, Ishiguro mentioned this fascination and how, “Sometimes we look at our memories and they don’t line up neatly. They don’t help us.” This becomes the crux of his novels (most of them), a narrator looking back at a significant moment in their past, trying to understand it through their recollections of it (and when this is not the case, as in A Buried Giant, memory is still an all-important plot device). 

The problem, though, is that our memories of our past do fail us, especially when we don’t want to admit to ourselves the truths they reveal. And the narrators in Ishiguro’s books definitely don’t want to come to grips with the truths their pasts reveal. In the same interview with Bradbury, which was done after the release of A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro mentions that he likes to write about, “How to evaluate your life in total social change.” In A Pale View of Hills,that is life in Nagasaki in the wake of the bomb, in An Artist of the Floating World, that was social life in the wake of the war, in Never Let Me Go, that was people reflecting on life as they come face-to-face with a much-to-soon death, in The Remains of the Day, that was post-romantic England in the wake of the decline of the major houses, and on and on it goes. What is created with this blend of memory and social change is an unreliable narrator that eventually reveals more about themselves in what they are unwilling to see than in what they tell us. Thus, reading Kazuo Ishiguro is an effort of reading between the lines. The reader often sees more than the narrator ever could from our safe and objective vantage point with a book in front of our noses, and if someday, we were to put our own harrowing memories down on a page, the reverse would be true.

Ishiguro attributes this unique reading relationship between his readers and his novels to his origins as a songwriter. His songwriting is what gained him entry into his creative writing class, and therefore becomes the basis for how he writes his novels. In an interview for “What it Takes,” Ishiguro explains that “great songwriters leave something important for the singer to do,” emotion to portray, ad-libbing to be done, and consequently his writing tends towards the method of great songwriting by leaving important work for the reader to do every time they turn the page.

The most obvious means of accomplishing this is by what Ishiguro refers to as his “reticence” to portray emotion in his novels. This is different than writing emotionless books, in fact Ishiguro’s books might create more emotions in me than any other, but he never tells the reader the emotions that his characters are feeling. So often in reading we relate to characters by reaching into the page and empathizing with the emotions the characters are going through- as it is explained to us by the author- and thus growing in our capacity to understand and connect to people with a different experience than our own. But what happens when the story is told by a narrator who is trying to make sense of their memories during total social change? They are incapable of informing us of the emotions at play, they are tone-deaf to every line and scene, which become rich in texture, because in this information vacuum- one that is normally over-stuffed by other authors- we have room to authentically connect with his writing. We look at these memories through the eyes of a narrator who cannot comprehend them and understand the people in the stories through the flaws in the story telling, the misunderstood body language and dialogue, the consequential scene that makes no sense based on what was told to us had come before. The relationship with the writing becomes complex and intimate, mirroring the relationship the narrator has with their memories. 

In A Pale View of Hills, Etsuko, as she comes to grips with her daughter’s suicide, portrays this flawed relationship with memory as well as any of Ishiguro’s books. Scenes like her husband and his father passively-aggressively fighting over when to finish a chess game, her father-in-law confronting one of his son’s friends about an article which was critical of his past, her friend drowning her own daughter’s pet kittens in a river right in front of her, and others, all are rich in power and emotion, and yet Etsuko the narrator is incapable of articulating those feelings, and therefore the reader is left with important work to do. 

None of this work is as important as what is left to the reader’s interpretation after Etsuko’s final memory of Mariko before she moves to America. As Etsuko confronts Mariko, who had run away after the murdering of her kittens, she scolds her in a tone of voice much different than the placating one she had used with the child thus far. Then she switches to the pronoun ‘we’ as she refers to the upcoming journey to America. Then she brings out the rope (noose) that had made eerie appearances earlier in the book, and the narrator’s recollections of the past, carefully manicured for the ease and the comfort of the narrator has broken, and the truth of her past starts to break through like rays of light through cracks in the wall. 

At this moment, the novel makes a big shift. Leading up to that moment, the reader was left believing that this was a story of flawed interactions that portray how the narrator and her daughter got to their present state, and by that alone it was an engaging and interesting read. But after that moment the book shifts to something so much more. The narrator is more unreliable than we could have imagined, and everything up to that point is left open for interpretation. It was a turn that was mildly expected after having read all of his other novels, but I was able to imagine how even more shocking it would be as his first.

My initial reaction in the immediate words after Etsuko brought out that noose one more time was that she was the child murderer that had been a minor backdrop that brought tension to whenever Mariko ran away. But as so many of our initial reactions to reading are, this was too blunt a take for a delicate work. My secondary reaction, after I had finished the rest of the book, was that Etsuko was Sachiko and Mariko was Keiko, an easy one-for-one trade. It seems even a bit poetic, Etsuko as the narrator-character that watches from the doorways and corners of her memory, watching her life play out before her in a third person point of view as she retells it from the first-person narrative. But this also seemed a bit ham-fisted in comparison to the elegance of the writing. Plus, it wasn’t believable. This was a narrator that in the wake of her daughter’s death was hungry for answers. There is no way she would buy into such an elaborate lie as to convince herself that her past self was someone else. 

As I considered the book in the days that followed my reading, and as I listened to interviews with Ishiguro, I realized the answer was probably simpler than that. The answer is much more likely that we just don’t know what Etsuko’s past is and what is Sachiko’s. Etsuko can’t differentiate because her relationship to her past -marred by an atom bomb, fractured relationships, and total social change- is so muddy. What remains true is the emotions that remain, unnamed, on the page. The only things we can know for certain are the things unstated, because what is stated just won’t do. 

In many ways it is the most beautiful relationship Ishiguro is able to create between his reader and his work, most representative of all our relationships with our past, and therefore is such a wonderful starting point (or ending point for me) to view Ishiguro’s works about memory.

When asked if Ishiguro ever put himself into one of his novels, he said that he did not. That his novels were a way of asking if the reader experienced the things he experienced, if they felt the same things he felt. His books ask his reader the question, Is this true for you too? Do you see it this way? And a more beautiful question has never been asked.

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