Ishiguro is a Nobel winner for our times
Afew years ago in a panel discussion at a literary festival I was asked to name a recent British novel that readers and critics would still be talking about in a hundred years’ time. On the spur of the difficult moment I plumped for Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Only as I tried to explain my choice did I realise why I had given this answer. It was not just a novel I enjoyed and admired, it was also a novel that enacted something elementary and elemental: a human’s need to imagine his or her origins.
The Swedish Academy has made some dubious decisions in recent years but, in awarding Ishiguro the Nobel prize in literature, this year its 18 voters have got it right. Ishiguro’s novels step aside from contemporary mores and pressing social issues. Audaciously, sometimes bewilderingly, they abstract us from our times.
How brilliant it is that Never Let Me Go opens with a page that says only “England, late 1990s”. Narrated by a young woman who is a clone, created to provide organs for those requiring transplant surgery, it takes place in a version of Britain both cosily provincial and utterly strange. The countryside, the liberal boarding school, the English seaside town have never made for such a disturbing backdrop. Similarly, the novel that made him famous, The Remains of the Day, took a character familiar from a hundred English books and films – the butler in a country house – and gave him a narrative of painstaking evasiveness. For all the teasing period detail, it was a novel about human self-denial and selfdeception at any time and in any place.
While stylistically austere or self-limiting, Ishiguro’s fiction revels in literary allusion and generic playfulness. Often he takes a well-known fictional subgenre and transforms it. With Never Let Me Go it is dystopian science fiction. His most recent work, The Buried Giant, perplexed many with its rewriting of the rules of fantasy fiction. Imagining Britain in the dark ages, it creates characters who have lost track of history and cannot even remember the important events of their own lives. It is a fable for all times. It is because he writes for all times, using such carefully controlled means, rigorous yet utterly original, that Ishiguro is such a worthy winner.