Kazuo Ishiguro

13 November 2012

Rachel Hunter listened to the Booker Prize-winning author

“We do tend to keep children protected when they’re young” asserts Kazuo Ishiguro, or ‘Ish’ as he prefers to be known; “Total strangers will collude with you in keeping children in a bubble. They’ll smile at a child to reassure them that the world is a happy place.”

Kazuo Ishiguro, four-time Man Booker Prize nominee and one-time winner (with his 1989 classic Remains of The Day) cuts an unprepossessing figure in the Friends’ Meeting House at Birkbeck College, where he converses self-consciously with Professor Russell Celyn Jones, largely about his most recent novel set in a counterfactual world populated by clones, Never Let Me Go (2005). The naturalism on display in the book is an offset of our own: the characters attend school, smoke, go shopping, and take road trips against a familiar rural backdrop. As Ishiguro puts it, “I just pretended that the whole world was Norfolk.” The novel is in some ways a coming of age book, bringing into light questions of human existence – self-worth, the purpose of humanity, and the idea of the ‘soul’ – and in other ways a dystopian venture, questioning the scientific advances of our time, and where they leave society and mankind. When questioned on his choice to write about cloning, Ishiguro is surprisingly vague: “My novel is not primarily addressing these issues. They are a way of getting into a metaphorical arena the question of life spans. We all have ambivalent attitudes to the rapid improvements in biotechnology”. This claim, in regard to a novel where it is not fully understood that the characters are clones until well into the narrative, is an astonishing statement. The shock of moving from an idyllic view of a boarding school to the realisation that each child has been genetically engineered as organ vessels, which will be removed from them until they die, or to use Ishiguro’s more sinister word ‘complete’, is the lasting impression of the novel. Yet Ishiguro expresses surprise that the book was found to be depressing: “All my other novels focus on human weaknesses. I found this book cheerful because basically all the characters are decent…I almost obsessively write about the concept of self-deception.”

It is a fascinating and extraordinarily human focus, and one which recurs throughout Ishiguro’s novels. Through consistent use of the first person narrator the notion of ‘unreliable memory’ – or as the writer puts it ‘struggling to forget’- pervades Ishiguro’s novels, not least in Never Let Me Go. It is humanity, and what makes us human, which provides the focus of Ishiguro’s narrative choices; “I have always been interested in any endeavour that humans employ themselves in. We have a kind of determination to say ‘I did it well.'” It is this determination which pervades Ishiguro’s writing: a cleanness in his description, an accuracy in his phrasing, and above all a dedication to his narrative leads to a novel which leaves a lasting and deeply affecting impression.