British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the highest award a literary author can receive. It is given not for a single piece, but for the collective work throughout an author’s career. The organization that selects the recipient, The Swedish Academy, stated that Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
Recently, the award has been given to authors whose literary medium is considered rather unconventional for the literature prize. For example, in 2016 it was given to Bob Dylan for his songwriting and in 2015 to Svetlana Alexievich, an investigative journalist. This year the award has returned to a novelist on the merit of pure literary talent.
Born in Nagasaki, Japan, Kazuo Ishiguro moved to Britain with his family when he was five years old. He graduated from the University of Kent and went on to receive his MFA from the University of East Anglia. He has written seven novels, and while they all have vastly different storylines, common themes arise in many. Ishiguro stated in an interview that “[he’s] written all these books about individuals struggling with their personal memories…and not knowing when to hide from their past and when to confront their past for some sort of resolution.” Themes of regret, loss, and acceptance can be found in almost all his works, pushing emotional boundaries and creating emotional experiences for readers.
Ishiguro’s diverse novels use elements of dystopian, mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction. If you’re just starting to discover his works, let’s look at a brief introduction of some of of Ishiguro’s novels.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Novels
Ishiguro’s first novel is about Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in Britain. With the recent suicide of her daughter, she dwells on her memories from Japan during World War II. Ishiguro begins to blur past and present with varying storylines, forcing a reluctant Etsuko to confront her memories and the reality of them.
Artist Masuji Ono vowed to never devote his art solely to the physical beauty of the world around him. Now, in Japan after World War II, a mature Ono must reflect on his changed views towards art and the direction his career path has taken. In doing so, he ruminates on life decisions, revealing not only his triumphs but also his faults.
Set during World War II in England, Stevens—the “perfect” butler—remains fiercely loyal to his master. At the end of three decades of service, he must reflect on the true character of his master, the meaning of “good” and “bad,”, and who he really is. Ishiguro claims that “the book is about the tragedy of a man who takes that thing too far, who somehow denies himself the right to love and be human.”
Renowned pianist Ryder is in a central European city that he can’t remember the name of, playing at a show he can’t remember agreeing to. A novel that explores what happens when a man’s life accelerates far too quickly, Ishiguro explores yet again the confrontation between a character and the reflection of his current life.
Christopher Banks is a famous London detective, famed for his ability to solve confounding and high-profile mysteries. However, there is one case he cannot solve: the disappearance of his own parents in Shanghai when he was a young child. Set during the interwar years between Shanghai and London, When We Were Orphans scrutinizes memory and explores the need for return in a gripping and poignant way.
Kathy reflects back on her seemingly idyllic childhood when she went to boarding school in England. Using elements of science fiction, Ishiguro delves into a thoughtful character analysis in which Kathy learns to realize the meaning of friendship, love, and the fragility of life.
On Winning the Nobel Prize
On winning the prize, Ishiguro had the following to say:
“[A]mazing and totally unexpected new for me. It comes at a time when the world is uncertain about its values, its leadership, and its safety. I just hope that my receiving of this huge honor will, even in a small way, encourage the forces of goodwill and peace at this time.”
With the rise of technology and social media, our attention spans have shortened significantly. Reading novels requires an immense amount of thought and focus, but the benefits of reading fiction are unparalleled. Ishiguro’s novels, and other works of fiction in general, provide us insight into the trials and tribulations of the human experience.
(Cover photo via The New Yorker)