Kasuo Ishiguro, a Japanese-born British novelist, has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in literature. By nature, I confess to not being a fan of celebrity or hero. I admire, study and respect ethical people of insight and daring achievement. I love autobiographies because I love the human voice; I read biographies because I am fascinated by the existential archaeology of a visionary life. But being myself the product of the end of empire, of the bankruptcy of utopian civilizing ideologies, I have always felt close to Ishiguro as a literary student of the psycho-cultural effects of political ideology in decay. In these chaotic times, his quiet study of conservatism bears many lessons for the cultural intelligentsia of the American Left.
Born in Japan but raised in England, Ishiguro is more traditionally English than many a contemporary Englishman, not out of snobbishness as a class credential but because of the profound intimacy the artist has truly achieved with whiteness. Two of his novels, The Remains of the Day, awarded the 1989 Man Booker Prize for fiction, and Never Let Me Go, both translated into successful films, stand as bookend monuments to the British psychic space. The first is a mausoleum to aristocratic bankruptcy; the second is a memorial to decency. Only a brilliant immigrant artist could have written them because only a prodigious immigrant child could have been forced to engage in such a deep study of the culture and the people who have dominated his life from the start.
In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison, a 1993 Nobel in literature, speaks of the intimacy with whiteness that is forced upon the subjects of empire, who then become responsible, if not cursed, with patiently teaching a wider audience about the mindset of the former cultural oppressors. Of course, there are teachers and there are Teachers, and Ishiguro is a master methodical educator. In that sense, he is the perfect creative subject forced to take on intimacy with the dominant unconscious that betrays civilization, even though that is, purportedly, what is being promoted on the back of the culturally colonized.
Civilizing is a deeply uncivil act that can only be survived through intimacy with the dominator’s conscious intent and unconscious forces. Cultural intimacy is the insight and the strength of Ishiguro’s work. His voice is wonderfully complex, for he is criticizing both what he is not and what he has become, what he loves and what he distrusts, and striking that perfect psychic equation is an admirable performance.
I like to think of him simultaneously as a terrorist and a loyalist, engaging in the contradictory complexity which fine historical minds like Mahatma Gandhi’s and, more recently, Barack Obama’s, as fellow colonized children, could sustain in the form of articulate, multilateral, public identities.
Although the Victorian and Edwardian social mores that still determined much late into the twentieth century have finally come to die on the shores of social media, I would wholeheartedly recommend Ishiguro’s two aforementioned novels as helpful to understanding the secret foundations of the more diverse immigrant society that some Western nations are trying to grapple with today. In a world of fake news, and thus, of fake presidential giants, Kasuo Ishiguro truly stands taller than most. His intellectual height is real.
Globally, I pursue comparisons across updated disciplines, and Ishiguro reminds me of René Redzepi, the famous chef and co-owner of Noma, the two-Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen voted best restaurant in the world for three years in a row. He is the author of the seasonal, farm-to-table, new Nordic cuisine, every plate a perfect still life of that regional landscape, yet he was born in Copenhagen to Muslim parents who immigrated to Scandinavia. Redzepi is more traditionally Scandinavian than many a contemporary Dane. Only an artist can understand the creative coexistence of the brutal and the beautiful, if not the ruthless and the cozy.
In his recent New York Times piece on Ishiguro, literary critic Dwight Garner writes of characters caught in-between worlds, much like the early literature of colonialism portrayed mulattoes (a politically-inappropriate term in the US but widely used in the Caribbean to this day) as tragic figures. Yes, Mr. Stevens, the butler is dispensable and innocent young clones are to be harvested, but that is not the real tragedy; that is the day to day reality of all the supportive characters and extras in the empire of whiteness. However, I do not think that that is truly the point in Ishiguro’s work. That an immigrant to England has written very British novels comes as no surprise to non-white writers, because that is what immigrants do¾to survive: we observe closely; we take copious notes while the country around us remains unaware and perceives us flatly. In this instance, Ishiguro is a storyteller who betrays and transform our notes into novels. And I am glad. I think of Ishiguro as one who turns the tables and makes whiteness exotic.
Ishiguro was born in post-atomic Nagasaki in 1954 and migrated to Great Britain in 1960 at the age of five. Having been born in Havana in 1957 and migrated to a US Commonwealth in 1961 at the age of four, his early cultural pilgrimage is extremely familiar. As a child, he was a fan of Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate student of the human condition. As a man, he has stated that Charlotte Brontë was his favorite author; in fact, that he owns his career to Jane Eyre and Villette. It is also interesting to note that Ishiguro’s father was an oceanographer, a fact that makes one feel like waxing poetic on that parentage of the deep, but this will have to wait for his autobiography. In the meantime, his works continue to cast spells, not because he is a magician, but because he sees.
In his latest novel, The Buried Giant, reviewed by Neil Gaiman for the Times Book Review, Ishiguro writes of a mysterious mist that envelops Medieval England stealing memories from all, making everyone forget who they are, where they come from, and where they are going. I would venture to say that Kasuo Ishiguro’s entire oeuvre is a lifelong literary effort at helping us fight the mist of forgetfulness. Forgetting does not produce an innocent people, as Americans mistakenly think. Painful remembrance and confrontation with the past, through fact and metaphor, is what heals and absolves us all.