Ishig­uro is a No­bel win­ner for our times

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - John Mul­lan

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.

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