More English than the English

Kazuo Ishiguro, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a non-native speaker of English who acquired the language and reached the pinnacle of creativity.

Published : Oct 25, 2017 12:30 IST

Kazuo Ishiguro.

Kazuo Ishiguro.

KAZUO ISHIGURO, winner of the Literature Nobel this year, was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954. When he was five years old, his family moved to Britain, with no definite plans of staying on. It was obviously not a migration with the conscious intention of absorbing the language and culture of the host country. Therefore, it was in a Japanese family speaking Japanese at home that Ishiguro grew up; he was groomed in “Japanese values”, as he was quoted as saying by Graham Swift in 1989. He acquired English along with his mother tongue. As the family’s stay in England got prolonged, his education progressed in English, and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Kent was in English and philosophy. He took his master’s in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Here, we get the picture of a non-native speaker of English acquiring the language and reaching the pinnacle of creativity in it, without getting influenced deeply by the British culture as is the case with many immigrant writers and artists, including Indians, whom I had occasion to observe during a brief sojourn in Britain two decades ago. As if reflecting what I have deduced above, Ishiguro made it clear in an interview on October 5, after winning the Nobel: “I’ve always said throughout my career that although I’ve grown up in this country and I’m educated in this country, that a large part of my way of looking at the world, my artistic approach, is Japanese, because I was brought up by Japanese parents, speaking in Japanese.” He continued: “I have always looked at the world through my parents’ eyes.”

Ishiguro has written seven novels: A Pale View of Hills (1982), An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Remains of the Day (1989), which won him the Man Booker Prize, The Unconsoled (1995), When We Were Orphans (2000), Never Let Me Go (2005) and The Buried Giant (2015). Of these, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go have been made into celebrated movies, with the former featuring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the lead roles, and both getting Oscar nominations. All the novels, except the last one, are written in the first person. Most of these novels are set in the past and are reconstructions of memories.

Ishiguro also writes screenplays, apart from songs for the jazz singer Stacey Kent.

Except perhaps in A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World in which the Japanese identity comes through, albeit with a view to positioning memory, Ishiguro does not seem to assert openly his Japanese identity, belying his own observations on that. Unlike, for example, what one may find in fellow immigrant writer Salman Rushdie’s works. Beginning with Midnight’s Children , a few of Rushdie’s novels are set in India and seem to have an Indian soul. His language is “chutnified” (as he himself has quipped), mixing desi expressions and phrases with English, often resulting in unique and complex constructions (most notably in Midnight’s Children , as against the chaste and simple constructions of Ishiguro’s English). Conversely, V.S. Naipaul repudiates his roots, beginning with An Area of Darkness and is hell-bent on being “pure” British, though, with Nirad Chaudhuri (if his name can be mentioned alongside Rushdie and Naipaul) taking it to the other extreme of unabashed Anglophilia.

Ishiguro’s novels (except The Unconsoled ) are set in England, though A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World have but Japanese memories running through. The Remains of the Day has a typical English theme, with the English butler, certainly a “national institution”, being its hero. Stevens, the butler, who, by virtue of the characteristics of his trade, represses his personal aspirations, including a romantic inclination towards the housekeeper Miss Kenton, and several decades later, realises the futility of it all when it is too late to revive his relationship with her, even as he finds that her marriage is on the brink of breaking down.

The Buried Giant (2015), Ishiguro’s last published novel, takes place in the England of the beginning of the Dark Ages, peopled by early Britons and Saxons immediately after the action of the Arthurian legends happens. The novel’s opening sentences set the mood, which pervades throughout: “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there, rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land.” People lived in a world of monsters, shadows and darkness, in warren-like homes hewn on the hill-slope. Though at first reading it looks like a moral story, it is about memory. The book serves as a reminder that the tragic and traumatic happenings of the past are to be remembered, obviating the tendency to forget the ages before the advent of humanism when theocracy reduced individuals practically to deformed beings, vestiges of which are carried forward even to the present times, resulting in bigotry and bloodshed.

Influences The Nobel Committee described Ishiguro’s oeuvre thus: “If you mix Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, then you have Kazuo Ishiguro in a nutshell. But you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix. Then you stir, but not too much, then you have his writings.” Ishiguro dismissed such comparisons in the past (except the mention of Marcel Proust, perhaps); he has revealed that if at all, he may have been faintly influenced by Japanese author Junichiro Tanisaki and before him Fyodor Dostoevsky and Marcel Proust. He also acknowledges the influence of Japanese films by Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse in his interview with Gregory Mason in 1989, clearly sticking to his Japanese identity. However, one who reads The Remains of the Day cannot but reflect that the narrative style reminds one of Jane Austen.

The Nobel Committee noted thus about the stylistic and thematic specialties of Ishiguro’s fiction: “Ishiguro’s writings are marked by a carefully restrained mode of expression, independent of whatever events are taking place. At the same time, his more recent fiction contains fantastic features.” The last sentence is clearly in view of his last two novels, Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant . The former can be described as belonging to the genre of science fiction, while the latter is steeped in fantasy.

It is, however, noteworthy that the English novel is obviously straying far from being “British”; the Empire definitely seems to continue to write back. Immigrant authors have contributed majorly to the English novel of the latter part of the 20th century, three of them winning the Nobel Prize for Literature—Doris Lessing, from what is now Zimbabwe, V.S. Naipaul from Trinidad and Tobago and now, Ishiguro. Salman Rushdie won the Booker Prize in 1981 and, again, the Booker of Bookers in 1993 for Midnight’s Children .

Over the past few weeks I have been reading fiction by two authors who contributed significantly in changing the language of contemporary English fiction—Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness makes for cautious reading, while Rushdie’s The Golden House is in the grand narrative pattern replete with names, incidents and anecdotes, which keep you riveted to recent history and ancient prototypes, as well as the essentially comic in the human vanity of being calculative. Both have deliciously different styles. As I read again Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day , I found the felicity of expression similar to that of these two authors but more nuanced and typically “British”, albeit, of a “classical” mould, as already mentioned. And the common factor among the three? They are not white English speakers. They learned English and became masters in their own styles in that language. They did this with utmost seriousness as students of that language, with a diligence only a foreign student can show in its acquisition, while the native speaker may take for granted the finer points in this process. This could be possible perhaps only in English. Of course, I am not forgetting authors such as Samuel Beckett or Milan Kundera, who learned French and wrote in that language, but English is one language that seems to attract quick learning and creative expression of non-native practitioners, bespeaking its global appeal. Creative imagination experiencing fecundity in an acquired language like English for a Japan-born Ishiguro, and getting the ultimate recognition through winning the Nobel Prize, gives an Indian English buff like me great personal satisfaction. I only wish Salman Rushdie and a host of the younger generation writers of English from India similarly win the Nobel Prize, in good time.

A.J. Thomas is an Indian English poet and translator from Malayalam. He was Editor, Indian Literature , the bimonthly literary journal of the Sahitya Akademi and is now its Guest Editor.

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