Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ishiguro and language

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Kazuo Ishiguro. But the more I read of his work, the more I feel that it is all about coitus interruptus.

Well, ok – that’s not exactly true (but somehow I couldn’t resist this opening line). Ishiguro’s writing is really more about coitus non performatus: in his books, budding relationships are left to peter out, secret desires remain undeclared and potentially joyful emotional roads are not taken. His characters typically lack the honesty and courage to acknowledge and express their feelings and so end up lonely and disappointed.

The butler Stephens, narrator-protagonist of The Remains of the Day, is haunted by the memory of his former colleague Miss Kenton, but fails to confess his love when he meets her many years later. In a similar way, the uptight Christopher Banks in When We Were Orphans is unable to act upon his feelings for the eccentric Sarah Hemmings, with whom he briefly hopes to start a new life. In Never Let Me Go characters copulate with gay abandon, but because they are clones regularly culled for their organs until they die they have been brainwashed into not developing any deep feelings for their sexual partners.

Taking up some of the author's pet themes - strained relationships, a sense of imminent loss and a general disappointment with life - and presenting variations on them, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (Faber and Faber, 2009) is an entirely typical Ishiguro book.

In “Crooner” an ageing American singer hires a Polish street musician in Venice to serenade the woman he is about to divorce because he believes that she hampers his comeback. In “Come Rain or Come Shine” Raymond, a middle-aged language teacher is confronted with the possibility that he might have misinterpreted a long-standing college friendship. In “Malvern Hills” an overconfident but unsuccessful young musician plays a practical joke on a Swiss couple only to regret it when realising their appreciation of his work.

Nocturnes sets up an analogy between the skillful handling of musical instruments and the way human beings instrumentalise each other in the pursuit of their own interests (the Polish musician being the artistic equivalent to the cliché of the Ukrainian hit-man - helping to kill her softly). Importantly, however, the exploitative relationships that Ishiguro describes are never unilateral: rather than confronting each other as victims and perpetrators, his characters are entangled in a gordian knot of complicity.

The Polish guitarist in “Crooner” is not only attracted by the cash promised him for his services, but also clearly enjoys the opportunity to fawn upon a star beloved by his mother. In “Come Rain or Come Shine”, Raymond is summoned by his old friend Charlie to revitalise his marriage, but he is willing to do so because of a latent desire for Charlie's wife Emily (who, it turns out, has been despising him for as long as she has known him). The other stories, too, emphasise the power and pervasiveness of the human need to be acknowledged and liked by others while also depicting the unrecognised submissive acts of self-prostitution that this need results in.

In that sense, yes, the stories are truly tragic (and I'm not one to use this category lightly). But they are also tragic in so far as the characters are blind to these entanglements, while still priding themselves on their superior perceptiveness. This is as close as contemporary fiction gets to creating a sense of hamartia.

Again in a way that is typical of Ishiguro’s work, these personal encounters are set against a larger historical context - more concretely post-cold war Europe - invoked by the stories’ settings and their cosmopolitan dramatis personae. On a superficial level they could be read as vignettes about global tourism in which a variety of real geographic spaces (Venice, London, the Malvern hills, Hollywood) become the setting for miniature dramas about love, disappointment and the unbridgeable gaps that separate people.

America, however, seems to dominate these global encounters, whether explicitly, as in "Crooner", or implicitly, as in “Come Rain or Come Shine”, a story that seems to be inspired by the American phrase “the dog ate my homework” (on this point the story is woefully misread by Frank Kermode in his unflatteringly indifferent LRB review). In “Nocturne”, the only story set in America, an all-American obsession with beauty is contained within the “hush-hush floor” of a Hollywood hotel, where stars (or those aspiring to stardom) hide after their cosmetic surgery, but there is the notion that in the long run Old Europe will be smitten by this obsession, too.

Of course it already has. This suggests that the it is not Ishiguro's point to depict America as a noxious cultural virus. It would also be too simple to read the collection as a jeremiad about how human beings are entrapped in their sadly isolated existence. More likely and maybe appropriate is an inverse interpretation: in Ishiguro's stories, the personal is the political, so that global diplomacy (or the lack thereof) merely echoes what human beings do to each other in private.

To cite Mr Heston (out of context): "It's people!"

So far, so good - with their focus on individual experience, these psychological stories point outward towards politics at large. And yet there is an odd sense of artifice in all them, as though Ishiguro was consciously constructing stage sets for his overt messages, as if to remind us that this is fiction with no immediate referential relationship to the real world. Although they are all about communication - in foreign languages and on foreign soil - characters often speak a stilted code more akin to an emotionally and contextually empty Esperanto (or botched phrasebook Hungarian for that matter):
“‘Mr Gardner,’ I said eventually, ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking. But is Mrs Gardner expecting this recital? Or is it going to be a wonderful surprise?’” (“Crooner").
“‘ Of course, our country has many beautiful features. But here, in this spot, you have a special charm. We have wanted to visit this part of England for so long. We always talked of it, and now finally we are here!’” (“Malvern Hills”).
In Ishiguro's stories, communication is always slightly askew because although his characters have technically mastered English (either because they are native speakers or proficient foreigners), they seem to lack a level of understanding external to the purely linguistic. In them, English acts as a perfectly functional lingua franca which, even when applied successfully, nevertheless guarantees that strangers remain strangers.

What remains? Music, perhaps, that universal language - although Ishiguro is not one to idealise its communicative scope. Even music can be misunderstood or lead to misunderstandings.


KB Player said...

From your description, Ishiguro is the male Anita Brookner writing about unfulfilled lives.

The Wife said...

I admit that I don't really know much about Brookner and so that comparison wasn't intended.

But would it be a bad thing if Ishiguro were Brookneresque?

I have to add - and had added until I took the passage out of the post - that Ishiguro's characters are infuriating and I believe are meant to be so. Like characters in novels by Ballard, they are oddly blind to what is going on and unable to interpret the world appropriately. Not because they are not intelligent enough, but because they lack the kind of feelings necessary for human relationships to work. They're quite cruel in that way.