This year, Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel prize in literature. I took it personally, having completed an Honours thesis on his work at the University of Adelaide in 2003 – “‘A kind of homeless writer’: Kazuo Ishiguro’s pursuit of postnationality.” I remember being preoccupied by the way in which his works were shelved inconsistently within the Dewey Decimal System – English literature at some university libraries, Japanese literature at others.
To celebrate, I reread his eight books in sequence, from A Pale View of Hills  to The Buried Giant . I warmly recommend this activity to everyone, and endorse Susan Hill’s description of Ishiguro as “the best and most original writer of his generation.”
Most of all I experience Ishiguro as a generous writer. His novels differ more in subject than in style, always presenting a careful and sure voice. There is nothing accidental or slapdash about these works of fiction, even at their most sprawling; and yet Ishiguro offers this assurance and authority as a gift.
Here are five of the most distinctive and generous elements of Ishiguro’s novels that I noticed during my month of rereading.
Some writers reserve their own voice for omniscient narrators, leaving their characters something less. For the sake of realism, they ape imaginary vocabularies more limited than their own. Unrealistically but ethically, Ishiguro shares his language evenly with all characters, allowing them to express their bewilderment, desire and insight with the force of his best English.
There is nothing comforting about Ishiguro’s “I.” Instead, he creates narrators with perspectives that are deeply compromised, and then leaves readers to share (only) their view. This has been at the heart of his style since his first novel, and gives his books profound humanity. After all, aren’t we all conscious self-deceivers, using memory as a kind of accomplice? Ishiguro won’t impose on us a storyteller more reliable than ourselves.
Ishiguro’s novels make me laugh very often. It’s the comedy of surrealism, using exaggeration and distortion to expose something shockingly true. His characters go to extreme lengths to protect themselves from shame and exposure, ironically giving readers a full-length view of their compromises. We are on the floor with the man chewing a magazine, and with the pianist practising in a cubicle when he notices there is someone in the next stall. It’s as if we’ve been there before.
The settings of Ishiguro’s novels invitingly evoke his status as a Japanese migrant to England: Japan, Japan, England, somewhere in Europe, Shanghai (invaded by the Japanese), England, England’s mythical past. But none of these locations are stable, and the wobbly connection between narrator and setting tells us much about the former. This is not travel writing, for all its geographical scope. Ishiguro writes place as we experience it, and maps the world as our memories do.
Ishiguro’s characters feel very deeply, despite their often elaborate and strictly-kept codes of polite behaviour. By closely attending to the ways in which people limit expression, Ishiguro increases our understanding of the scope and mystery of human emotions. This is the opposite of a soap opera in which people speak very clearly about emotions, simplifying them. Instead, these characters say very little about what drives them most, giving us a tragically refined sense of it.
Kazuo Ishiguro, congratulations and thank you.
You can read my short reviews of Ishiguro’s books at goodreads by clicking these links: