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Kazuo Ishiguro -- haunted by a dreadful twist of history

Shihab Sarkar | Published: October 12, 2017 21:09:52 | Updated: November 11, 2017 12:40:46


Kazuo Ishiguro

 

The fame of an international literary celebrity has not been strange to Kazuo Ishiguro since 1989. In that year the Japanese-born British novelist was awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Global media coverage, coupled with scores of interviews, followed. Upon being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2017, Ishiguro now emerges on the global literary scene as a phenomenon. This special fame stems chiefly from his being born in post-nuclear bomb Nagasaki in 1954 --- nine years after 'Fat Man' levelled the city. The first two of Ishiguro's eight novels are set in this city as it was struggling to recover in its agonising way. The victorious US dropped the Bomb on Nagasaki on August 09 in 1945, three days after the first one razed Hiroshima to the ground.   The books depicting the painful efforts of Nagasaki to get over the Bomb traumas are 'A Pale View of Hills' (1982) and 'An Artist of the Floating World' (1986). Ishiguro's Booker-winning masterpiece 'The Remains of the Day' appeared in 1989.

Unlike Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), the Nobel laureate in 1968, Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) or Kenzaburo Oe (1935---), the 1994 Nobel laureate, Ishiguro has yet to attain the status of a widely-read Japanese author among general readers. But he does enjoy a special place in the serious literary circles. His readership began increasing exponentially after he was awarded the Man Booker Prize. In spite of Ishiguro's not being an oft-repeated name, discerning readers did not remain distanced from his work for long. Readers interested in continental literature, especially fictions belonging to the genre of Kafkaesque modernism, discovered in him an ideal author.

However, lately popular and globally bestselling Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami tops the list of Japanese authors among a section of readers, including those in Bangladesh. The critical segments consider him a writer with a penchant for the kitsch. Notwithstanding this opaque reputation among the highbrow readers, Murakami has earned the reputation of a major post-modernist novelist. He was also nominated for Nobel Prize this year. In Japan, the average readers have for the last few years been waiting eagerly to see the Nobel Prize go to Murakami.

By temperament Kazuo Ishiguro appears to uphold the 20th century trend of mixing narrative with the psychological developments occurring in the writer's inner world. He has a lot to narrate to his readers. Few writers are 'fortunate' enough to have been born in a country that passed through the nightmares of atomic bombs being dropped on it just five years before his birth. Ishiguro's native city Nagasaki found itself virtually on the verge of annihilation in the 'thousand-sun strong' nuclear conflagration. When he was born, the devastated city, alongside Hiroshima, was still smarting from the wounds inflicted by the nuclear bomb. When the 5-year-old Ishiguro left the country for Britain along with his family, Nagasaki had turned into a ghost city. In the charred neighbourhoods, only the skeletal structures of buildings stood, with hundreds of 'hibakushas' (survivors of the explosion) moving about like apparitions. The nuclear bomb fallout appears to have preoccupied the author for the greater part of his career. As he said in a 1989 interview, "I had to be attracted to pre-war and post-war settings because I am interested in this business of values and ideals being tested, and people having to face up to the notion that their ideal weren't what they thought they were before the test came." The horrific spectacle of the bomb-devastated Nagasaki appears in Ishiguro's maiden fiction in 1982 and the one that followed in 1986.

While announcing Ishiguro's name, the Swedish Academy said, "This year's laureate is a brilliant and even exquisite novelist." It called the author's 'The Remains of the Day' a masterpiece and him a "writer with great integrity", who developed his "aesthetic universe".

Every genuine writer creates his or her own aesthetic world --- beginning from Tolstoy to the modernists Lawrence Durrell, John Updike, Nikos Kazantzakis to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Kazuo Ishiguro returned to his native Japan three decades after he had left the country. In his earlier novels and the later ones, his dominant theme has been singled out as being "memory, time and self-delusion". These intangible, yet highly real, elements recur in the construction of subjects, events and characters in his work including 'The Remains of the Day'.

As he grew up in Britain, Ishiguro increasingly longed to go back to Japan, notwithstanding its becoming the "other country", because his emotional tie with Japan remained strong throughout his youth. The author's leaving of Japan as a child has been viewed by him as a powerful factor behind his later development as a writer.

Ishiguro's childhood in Japan, his leaving it behind and the country's different social transformations continued to haunt him as he matured. In yet another interview the author says, 'An Artist of the Floating World', his second book, is very much his own personal, imaginary Japan. It caused him to bleed as he recalled that as a small child he had been taken away from the people he knew, like his grandparents, his friends. But like that happened to many writers, the sense of being an alien in a different socio-cultural milieu, so detached from Japan's centuries-old oriental ethos, could not take hold of him. Ishiguro has deftly made his exclusively personal anguishes universal. This largely inexplicable feature reminds one of Vladimir Nabokov, as well as Joseph Conrad and VS Naipaul --- the last one on a different count though.

A notable aspect of Ishiguro's career as a consummate novelist is he could keep himself free from nostalgia and the plaintive memories of Japan. At the same time he turned to the hard and often-dreary and existential worlds of Dostoevsky, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen --- and most importantly, Franz Kafka. Ishiguro's 2015 novel 'The Buried Giant' delves into how memory relates to oblivion, history to the present and fantasy to reality, the topics which have fascinated him throughout his writing career.

Apparently following in the footsteps of the great 20th century authors, Ishiguro in his novels charged with intense emotional force has uncovered what the Swedish Academy calls the "abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world." This pervasive void and meaninglessness resembles the post-World War-I alienation that T.S. Eliot has repeatedly referred to in his poems 'Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' and 'The Waste Land'.

As Ishiguro was announced to have received the Nobel Prize, he had indisputably been ensconced in his position of an outstanding writer. He was already critically acclaimed as one of the few gifted modern classicists, with his ancestral roots deeply clinging to a land having a unique cultural identity. His is a country which is the birthplace of haikus and the Noh Theatre. For ages it has been witnessing docile and soft-spoken women in kimono, cherry blossoms prompting festivities, as well as overly masculine male youths mindful of heroism and self-dignity. Ishiguro was born in a beautiful yet martially disposed country, for which the thought of defeat was difficult to bear. But excesses invited the inevitable. The humiliation of surrender bruised the country badly in 1945 to haunt many Japanese with series of trauma and the ghosts of a dreadful twist of history. Despite not being present physically during these ordeals, Ishiguro could not resist being afflicted by them. Back in Japan, empowered by their sheer creative strength and optimism, cultural icons like Akira Kurosawa, Mishima, Kawabata et al played their part in the nation's process of healing. Ishiguro's spectacular emergence in 1989 and now his winning of the Nobel Prize cannot be isolated from the stark realities that his native country has had to pass through.

shihabskr@ymail.com

 

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