Opinion: Despite Literary Credentials, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize Isn’t Beyond Critique

Kazuo Ishiguro's Nobel Laureate announcement illustration. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. © Nobel Media AB 2017

Yanxuan Li
Boston University News Service

Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro didn’t know he would win the 2017 Nobel prize in literature until he was contacted by the media, and even at that time, he still thought it was a hoax.

But for Nobel Prize judges, the result was logical and, when compared to last year’s pick of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, less controversial. But the choice of Ishiguro isn’t beyond criticism.

“If you mix Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, then you have Kazuo Ishiguro in a nutshell,” said Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, on Thursday. “But you have to add a little bit more of Marcel Proust into the mix.”

The problem with this statement is that Ishiguro only took the form of Kafka, but was essentially the opposite of him. Ishiguro set most of his stories in unrealistic backgrounds and evaded focusing on recent big political issues. This gave his work some Kafka-esque style, while, in comparisonlacking the hysterical self-analysis of the German-language writer.

Ishiguro always maintained distance from his characters and avoided conflict in his novels. Instead of focusing on realistic issues, he tended to build an opaque atmosphere by filling his work with unorganized and superficial events, which he recognized as a deficiency in one of his early works, “A Pale View of Hills”.

In his later works, Ishiguro began trimming the extras in his plots and making his novels less ambiguous. However, he still avoided too much involvement with his characters. Unlike most writers who compare their writing to a child or an indispensable part of their body, Ishiguro thought of them as “guests” in his house. He isn’t a writer who totally immerses himself in it, crying and laughing with his characters.

According to Ishiguro, he had a reason for this. In “An Artist of the Floating World”,  a novel in which a painter reflects on his life in 1940s’ Japan, Ishiguro switches the setting from Nagasaki to a fictional place. By doing this, he avoids labeling his book as just another post World War II novel—works that denounced the tortures of the war, and, here especially, the Nagasaki nuclear bomb.

Ishiguro went even further in this book. Ono, the protagonist of the novel, lingers around the daily neighborhood affairs, reminiscing but refusing to mention the Nagasaki bomb or other social events, not even in metaphorical expressions.

Ishiguro defended his “outflanking tactics” by saying that he was writing a novel and didn’t want to involve too much politics in his work. This is typical in Eastern literature traditions.

Born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, Ishiguro moved to Surrey, England at the age of five and attended Stoughton Primary School and Woking County Grammar School. Before settling in England to be a professional writer, he traveled to North America where he kept journal and sent demo tapes to record companies.

As a British transplant with an international background, Ishiguro insisted on the influence of his Japanese roots on his writing. “I’ve always said throughout my career that, although I’ve grown up in this country (England), that a large part of my way of looking at the world, my artistic approach, is Japanese,” he said in an interview on Thursday.

However, Ishiguro did not evade politics, but conflicts and controversies. Yasunari Kawabata, one of Ishiguro’s Japanese counterparts in 1968, also preferred setting his novels in fictitious settings isolated from political disputes. For example, in his work “Snow Country”, the social characteristics are blurred, but, unlike Ishiguro, Kawabata dared to put his protagonists into emotional conflicts that lead to torturous self-analysis.

We also find this in Kafka’s short stories. The settings and even the protagonists in Kafka’s work are metaphysical, but there is never a lack of tension between characters and of  the cruelty to put his protagonists through dilemmas, under criticism and into self-examination.

Ishiguro, in comparison, seemed to be too kind to his characters. He never placed them into struggles or dilemmas. In all of his works, we find the same feeling in the narration—trivial, tranquil and aloof. There is no outburst of emotion, no direct conflict and no hysterical self-analysis.

Compared with Bob Dylan, Ishiguro has a greater reputation as a professional writer. He does have a style of unique and clear narration by using simple words and getting rid of redundancies. But as a winner of the most prestigious literature prize in the world, he still lacks the courage to pick up spiny issues and the mastery to handle conflicts in his writing.

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