Strange how an annual prize awarded by a small group of Swedish academics has so taken hold of the global imagination in terms of representing the best of science, humanitarianism and literature, is perhaps one of the great unanswerable questions of the twentieth century. The award’s criteria are vague at best; arbitrary and racist at worst. Nevertheless, it is Nobel season – and this time they’ve chosen, in my opinion, an absolute corker. I can’t help but take this opportunity to wax lyrical about the most recent Literature Laureate: British-Japanese master of the first-person narrative, Kazuo Ishiguro.
Ishiguro is most famous for his heart-breaking character study in The Remains of the Day and the dystopian tragedy Never Let Me Go, the varied genres of which exemplify his wide range. However, some of his most moving pieces, those which make his writing so powerful, have to do with his Japanese heritage. Moving to the U.K. aged 5 and not returning to Japan until many years later, he has claimed in interview with Bomb Magazine that his relationship with Japanese culture is often overstated – but nevertheless his early novels A Pale View of the Hills and The Artist of the Floating World deal with Japanese identity after the Second World War with a sincerity that could not be imagined in a writer completely uninformed by this cultural context.
My personal favourite is a sprawling complex piece that almost defies analysis, which one critic at the time, Tony Parsons, called to be “burned” – The Unconsoled. Part magical realism, part intimate domestic comedy, for me this difficult-to-read novel sums up all that is good and bad and unknowable in twentieth-century postmodern literature. Ishiguro is incredibly aware of the tradition within which he writes and yet at the same time also highly original and ground-breaking. He plays with form and genre in a way that few other contemporary authors manage to do. The story of one man’s attempts to understand his place in the world defies our usual expectations of narrative and storytelling. By utilising, as is typical in his works, a first-person perspective, he creates a close relationship between the reader and the narrator, even in a story where the actions of the narrator are hard to follow.
His mixed heritage has also leant him strength in those novels that are decidedly British: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. Both have been adapted into award-winning films, and both have been hailed as examples of the modern great British novel: examples of subdued, morally complex and darkly comic postmodernism, as exemplified by writers like Ian McEwan and Kingsley Amis. He sums up the post-colonial, twentieth-century state of being British, and in doing so proves himself deserving of this most prestigious prize. His unique position as both a part of British culture and yet still an outsider lends him a keener eye in picking out cultural nuances.
The Remains of the Day is the tragic tale of a dutiful butler reliving memories of his stately home’s 1930s heyday under the control of the Nazi sympathiser lord of the manor; Never Let Me Go is the tale of child clones bred to extend human life expectancy who are sent to traditional English boarding-schools as the country tries to grapple with the moral conundrum of how to treat them. True, these novels taken simply as stories could take place anywhere, but to me what makes them uniquely British is the fact that the moral quandaries do not take centre-stage: they are secondary to the central characters’ self-realisations. No moral absolutism is offered; there are no real villains in either piece. The horrors – the Holocaust, the harvesting of human organs – are brushed over in favour of delving into the most intimate thoughts and desires of a few characters. He does the same thing with the protagonist of The Artist of the Floating World, focusing on the painter’s own journey and not on the larger context of the atrocities inflicted upon and by Japan during the Second World War. In writing thus, Ishiguro is not diminishing the horrors of human existence: he is instead drawing greater attention to them by making them real. The Diary of Anne Frank makes us cry not because it explains in detail what was going on in Amsterdam at the time or the fate of Anne and her family; instead, it is the intimate minutiae of Anne’s daily life that moves us: her first kiss; the books she reads. Ishiguro does something similar in his fiction. We cry for the things that are undiscussable, unmentionable and, in this way, we become the unconsoled.
Although Ishiguro himself claims to have been surprised when he received the nomination as he believes there are living authors who are worthier than he, it is for the reasons outlined here that I believe this is an excellent choice. He is a novelist who looks at the ways in which we hide from the terrible things we do to each other and to our planet by delving into our own psychoses – in 2017, that is all the more timely a subject matter than ever before.