Reviews — From the April 2015 issue

The Test of Time

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels of remembering

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Discussed in this essay:

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf. 336 pages. $26.95.

Why does nobody talk about Kazuo Ishiguro? Never in my life has someone recommended an Ishiguro novel to me, and I am a person to whom people frequently recommend novels. Fashion recycles the past, but literary taste, for the new and the newly reissued, has a brutally short memory: Roberto Bolaño, Robert Walser, Renata Adler, Chris Kraus, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante — the wheels spin on. Still, faddism alone doesn’t explain the silence around Ishiguro. When you tell a fellow admirer that you are a recent convert, as I am, you often get something like a shrug, as if you have just suggested that The Great Gatsby is a ripper of a yarn. Others back away slowly, admitting grudging respect but no enthusiasm. “I think he’s very good, yes, although to be honest there is something snobbish in me that never quite lets myself say he is one of my favorite writers,” a friend wrote to me recently. “What is that? I think it’s something about feeling very clearly manipulated, maybe.”

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Ishiguro is a manipulator, a masterful one. He writes straight-up tearjerkers. Even their titles run the scale of a minor key: A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled, When We Were Orphans, Never Let Me Go, Nocturnes, The Buried Giant. The Saddest Music in the World, a screenplay that Ishiguro wrote in the 1980s, was rewritten by Guy Maddin and George Toles. In his 2003 film, Maddin preserved only two aspects of Ishiguro’s original: the title and the conceit, a contest to determine the world’s saddest music. Yet Ishiguro is also a canny destroyer of the pieties that cling to art. One by one his books dismantle the idea that art consoles, that art contains truths, that art expresses the soul. He insists on the artificiality and createdness of his narratives.

Some find his tone unsettling. The charge is that Ishiguro is an imitator or technician who writes prose that is disturbing or haunting for its very learnedness, its perfect pitch. The critic Louis Menand, who made this claim in 2005, went so far as to say that even Ishiguro’s human characters have a hint of the android about them, that their constant obsession with learning to be human is a reflection of the author’s own “realism from an instruction manual.” Formulated in those terms, the charge becomes inextricable from racial panic: Ishiguro is too foreign, too imitative; he performs with bravura but without heart; he is efficient but cold.

It helps to know that after he read Sherlock Holmes as a child, Ishiguro stopped reading altogether until his early twenties. When he came to the novel, he did so as a student. His approach is intentional: the novel is a second language, as it were. (Music was his first vocation.) Describing his novels as perfect is at once apt and elusive, because his novels are not really about perfection. They are about failure, incompletion, forgetting — not about getting wiser, just about growing old.

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