The Beatrice Interview

Kazuo Ishiguro

"Let's see how long he can hang on to his little vision of how to deal with the problems of life."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Get Vertical!

Because of the tightness of Kazuo Ishiguro's tour schedule, we were only able to speak briefly with one another over the telephone, but I was still very eager to talk with him about the critical reaction to his fifth novel, When We Were Orphans. In it, Christopher Banks, the world's most talented consulting detective, returns to his childhood home of Shanghai during the early stages of the Japanese invasion, convinced that he can avert the coming war if he can just solve the mystery of his parent's disappearance. One of the two New York Times reviews, for example, called the novel Ishiguro's "fullest achievement yet," while the other reviewer appeared confused by the novel's stylistic elements, which combine the psychological realism of the novels that marked Ishiguro's rise to literary stardom with the surreality of his previous book, The Unconsoled.

RH: As the reviews have started coming in, are you surprised by the polarised responses?

KI: It's not as varied as the reaction to The Unconsoled, which some people absolutely hated it while others made highest claims for it. To some extent, that controversy continues with this book; I've noticed in a lot of reviews that they'll spend the first half discussing The Unconsoled, trying to reassess it.

That second review you mention isn't really negative, either. I mean, she does say she likes parts of the book, though she finds it disappointing overall. But that's not unusual, although it may seem that way because you're in New York and you've got the two main vehicles for book reviews saying different things. But I find inceasingly in London that the days of a general consensus about a book or a movie seem to be dying out. In a way, I think that's not a bad thing. It shows that people aren't afraid to say what they think, and perhaps it reflects a kind of a diversification of literary culture as well. That it's not just a uniform homogenous thing anymore, not a group of elite people secure in their values. There are different sorts of people who all, in some ways, are committed to books, like books, take the whole thing very seriously.

What I'm finding is that there are people who either like the side of my work that is like The Remains of the Day--a very well shaped, essentially realistic kind of writing--and then there are those who prefer me actually to be doing, I don't necessarily think better, but slightly riskier things such as The Unconsoled and parts of this book. So I would say a lot of the initial critical response, even the favorable reviews, has had an element of qualification about it, as opposed to the kind of fairly universal praise I got for The Remains of the Day. But qualification goes both ways: There are people who say, "Isn't it a shame that he pulls back at the end and ties up all the ends in a traditional narrative? He doesn't need to do that." Just as there are people who say, "What a shame he spoils what might have been a really nice sort of realistic, post-Jamesian, kind of Edwardian story with this weird stuff in the second half."

RH: As in many of your books, an unreliable narrator looks back at his memories and gradually starts to realize things that he or she missed before. But in earlier books, the narration was much more naturalistic; here, chinks in the narrator's armor start appearing quite early for people who are savvy enough to catch them.

KI: I think with a character like Stevens, or any of my earlier first- person narrators, it's very easy for the reader to measure the distance between his version of reality, what he's telling himself happened, and what actually happened out there. You can actually measure how unreliable he is; there's a clear sense in which the writer and the reader collude over the head of the narrator, to some extent. So there are things we don't know about in The Remains of the Day, but that's only because we haven't been told them.

Christopher Banks is unreliable in a different way. It's not an attempt to do that kind of unreliable narrator where we can see that he's slightly crazy, or getting crazier and crazier as the book goes on, but we always have a clear sense of what the normal world is and how far he's moved away from it. What I was trying to do is to paint a picture of what the world might look like if it ran according to the less rational emotional logic that we often carry within us. We all kind of know what that means, metaphorically, to say that somebody is trying to replay something that went wrong in the past and do it right this time We know that, in most cases, we're not talking literally here. But in this book, to some extent, there's an attempt to portray a world that bends to that emotional logic, so in the latter half of the book, when Christopher Banks goes around declaring that his parents must be holed up somewhere, even after all these years, and he must free them, and that this is the most important crucial thing in stopping the war, people don't do a double take. Because he still lives in the childhood vision of the world that's frozen since the time that he lost his parents when he was a little boy; it's remained arrested at that point and now it's applied to the adult world that he encounters.

RH: So he really is a famous consulting detective?

KI: Yes. As I say, it's not a picture of a fantasist or a mad person going through a normal, realistic world. It's actually the whole portrait of the world as it would be, if it ran according to a less rational logic that, nevertheless, I think, has enormous influence in the way we go about our lives. We don't always do things for sensible reasons. We don't choose our careers, or our friends, or our partners in life according to clean, logical reasons. This element of trying to replay things from the past--motives like that are often very powerful and I think that unconscious side of us, that "mad logic" part of us, is a very important part of our lives.

RH: In allowing Christopher to grow up and become the celebrated detective he's dreamed of being since a child, was it fun for you to-- I don't want to say parody, but let's say tweak the conventions of that type of fictional English detective?

KI: Yes, it was fun just at the basic level of a reader wanting to be entertained. I do enjoy those detective mysteries. Now, over the distance of time, there is a certain kind of quaintness that comes from that style and the atmosphere of that past age. But in a way, it was my way of trying to seduce a reader, you know, evoking a certain kind of atmosphere, an old world, Edwardian atmosphere. But I did have other reasons for choosing that kind of cozy detective story as a thing to parody or pastiche. I was quite keen to look at that view of how you deal with evil. In those detective mysteries of that time, there was a certain view of what evil is and how you deal with it to expunge it. Those mystery novels written by people like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, or Dorothy L. Sayers often give you an idealized harmonious community, usually an English village, that would be absolutely tranquil if only this one thing hadn't gone wrong...which is that somebody's been murdered. The evil is always very clear and easy to identify; you just don't know who the bad person is, and that's the mystery. So the detective unmasks this one element and everything goes back to being beautiful again.

What struck me about that whole genre is how it flourished immediately after the First World War. In other words, it was a very poignant escapism on the part of a generation that knew full well that evil and suffering in the modern world wasn't about a master criminal or a clever vicar who was poisoning people for somebody's inheritance. They had had the trauma of experiencing modern technological warfare in a world where ationalism and racism had gone bananas. They had seen a vision of the world that their leaders couldn't control, where bloodshed and suffering seemed to be unlimited in potential, and they very much wanted to escape it. I mean, they knew full well that the world wasn't like those novels, evil wasn't like that. But they wanted for a time to escape into that vision of how simple life could be if all you had to do was point to the person who was committing evil and the problem would go away. So part of my reason for being attracted to the whole detective thing was to say, "Well, let's look at someone who believes that everything that's gone bad in the world, in his personal world as well as the larger world, comes from an evil criminal element that needs to be unmasked. Let's bring him into the chaos of the 20th century and the brink of another world war. Let's see how he copes. Let's see how long he can hang on to his little vision of how to deal with the problems of life."

RH: As you've veered away from the realistic narration of your earlier fiction, do you see yourself continuing to explore the subconscious and the fantastic or might you head back to the types of narrators that you've done before?

KI: I don't see myself being dogmatic about it. I don't have any kind of beliefs about the right way to write. I don't entertain any notion, as some people do, that there is something outmoded about realism or naturalism, or that there's no point in doing it because cinema does it better. I feel I've simply expanded the territory that I feel happy dealing with. I feel I can still do a straight kind of narrative, like The Remains of the Day if I want to. In fact, my first novel, A Pale View of Hills, is actually much more towards the othe sort of story. A lot of people forget how it veers away a bit into something strange, but I think that side of my writing was always there to some extent.

So it very much depends on what I'm trying to do in a particular book. I don't think I'm going to stick with one thing or the other. I've got three possible projects lined up. I haven't quite decided which one of those I would actually work on as a novel. One of them would demand a much more traditional mode; there's no point in being strange and bizarre for no other reason than to be strange and bizarre. There has to be an artistic reason for it. don't believe in baffling people and annoying people just for the sake of it, for the sake of being clever. But if you're trying to do something, sometimes that's the only way in which you can do it, and there are a couple of other things that would require a slight stepping away from realism.

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