On the High Wire

The Remains of the Day

by Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf, 245 pp., $18.95

A Pale View of Hills

by Kazuo Ishiguro
Penguin, 183 pp., (out of print)

An Artist of the Floating World

by Kazuo Ishiguro
Vintage, 206 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro; drawing by David Levine

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan thirty-five years ago. He came to England when he was six, and has lived there ever since. This is a stranger experience than being Japanese in the United States, where the landscape is dotted with second and third generation Japanese. Even twenty years ago, few Japanese lived in England, and a Japanese child, except in a group of tourists, was a rare sight indeed.

Ishiguro writes in English. His English is perfect, and not just in the obvious sense: it is accurate, unhurried, fastidious, and noiseless. A hush seems to lie over it, compounded of mystery and discretion. The elegant bareness inevitably reminds one of Japanese painting. But at the very start of the first novel, A Pale View of Hills, he warns against such a cliché response. A Japanese girl has committed suicide in England:

Keiko…was pure Japanese, and more than one newspaper was quick to pick up on this fact. The English are fond of their idea that our race has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary.

In a sense, all three of Ishiguro’s novels are explanations, even indictments, of Japanese-ness, and that applies equally to the third novel, The Remains of the Day, in which no Japanese character appears. He writes about guilt and shame incurred in the service of duty, loyalty, and tradition. Characters who place too high—too Japanese—a price on these values are punished for it.

A Pale View of Hills is eery and tenebrous. It is a ghost story, but the narrator, Etsuko, does not realize that. She is the widow of an Englishman, and lives alone and rather desolate in an English country house. Her elder daughter, Keiko, the child of her Japanese first husband, killed herself some years before. The novel opens during a visit from her younger daughter, Niki, the child of her English second husband. Etsuko recalls her past, but Niki, a brusque, emancipated Western girl, is not very sympathetic. Her visit is uncomfortable and uncomforting, and she cuts it short: not only because of the lack of rapport with her mother, but because she can’t sleep. Keiko’s unseen ghost keeps her awake.

Etsuko’s reminiscences go back to the days just after the war. She is newly married to a boorish company man, and expecting his child. They live in one of the first blocks to be built in the ruins of Nagasaki. Etsuko is lonely and strikes up an acquaintance with an older woman, an embittered post-1945 Madam Butterfly. Sachiko lives in a derelict cottage among the rubble, and receives visits from an American who is always promising to take her to the States, but never does. She has lost everything in the war except her ten-year-old daughter, Mariko. The child is hostile to people but deeply attached to her cat and kittens; her mother leaves her alone…

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