Wednesday, August 19, 2009

195. A Pale View of the Hills – Kazuo Ishiguro

History: Published in 1982, it is the first novel for Kazuo Ishiguro.
Plot: During a visit from her daughter, Niki, Etsuko reflects back on her own life as a young woman in Japan, and how she left that country to live in Britain. As she describes it, she and her Japanese husband, Jiro, had a daughter together, and a few years later Etsuko met a British man moved with him to Britain. She took her elder daughter, Keiko, to Britain to live with her and the new husband. When Etsuko and her new husband have a daughter, Etsuko wants to call her something "modern" and her husband wants an Eastern-sounding name, so they compromise with the name "Niki," which seems to Etsuko to be perfectly British, but sounds to her husband at least slightly Japanese.
In Britain, Keiko becomes increasingly solitary and antisocial. Etsuko recalls how, as Keiko grew older, she would lock herself in her room and emerge only to pick up the dinner-plate that her mother would leave for her in the kitchen. This disturbing behavior ends, as the reader already has learned, in Keiko's suicide. "Your father," Etsuko tells Niki, "was rather idealistic at times...[H]e really believed we could give her a happy life over here....But you see, Niki, I knew all along. I knew all along she wouldn't be happy over here."[1]
Etsuko tells her daughter, Niki, that she had a friend in Japan named Sachiko. Sachiko had a daughter named Mariko, a girl whom Etsuko's memory paints as exceptionally solitary and antisocial. Sachiko, Etsuko recalls, had planned to take Mariko to America with an American soldier identified only as "Frank." Clearly, Sachiko's story bears striking similarities to Etsuko's.
Interpretations of this enigmatic novel vary. One interpretation claims that the story of Sachiko is, in fact, Etsuko's own story, from which she distances herself by presenting it as the story of another person altogether. The most significant evidence in favor of this interpretation includes the similarities in Etsuko's descriptions of Mariko and Keiko; Etsuko's reference to Keiko's presence at her visit to Inasa, which, according to what she had described earlier, had included only Sachiko and Mariko; and the passage in which what had been Etsuko's first-person narrative becomes -- with no more to signal the change than a bit of white space between one sentence and the next -- the first-person narrative of Mariko's mother, who is about to take Mariko to America. In this passage, Etsuko takes the lantern from Sachiko and goes looking for Mariko. There is then a line of whitespace, and the first-person narrative resumes (with the speaker still carrying the lantern); but when this post-whitespace narrator finds the girl, she speaks to her as though she herself is Sachiko, telling the girl that they must leave tomorrow but that they can return to Japan if she does not like America (which, further, would shed some light onto Etsuko's aforementioned statement to Niki that she knew Keiko would not like their new country).
Further, though the narrative makes it clear that Etsuko leaves her first husband and leaves Japan, there is no description whatsoever of how any of this happens unless one reads "Sachiko's" story as actually being Etsuko's story.
Arguments against this interpretation point out that these passages, while multi-layered, can be read in other ways as well, and suggest that Etsuko is merely reflecting on the similarities between her experiences and Sachiko's. Etsuko may, for example, have gone with her own daughter to Inasa at a later date than the time she visited there with Sachiko and Mariko, just as the post-whitespace passage in which the narrator speaks to the daughter she plans to take to America may be Etsuko's memory of an episode with Keiko that merely mirrors what she knows occurred much earlier between Sachiko and Mariko.
Review: What I didn’t like about it is that the mystery has to be solved by the reader, and it’s very ambiguous. And only in about 2 pages of the book does it ever reveal any type of question at all. The tension that emerges from the narrative comes from the several different strategies that characters adopt : there's Sachiko's almost absurd forward-looking optimism; there's the backward-looking nostalgia of Etsuko's father-in-law, which excuses much of the cultural pathology which led to Japan's annihilation in WWII; and there's the stasis of her husband, who seems unable to move forward or to deal with the past. From Etsuko's life choices it is obvious that she eventually chose Sachiko's path, but Keiko's suicide suggests the problematic nature of Etsuko's decision to choose a Western life. Etsuko's reminiscences of life in Japan are generally favorable, in particular the visual portrait of Japan is all done in dreamy pastels, the "pale view" of the title. And in the novel's closing pages, as Etsuko's younger daughter disparages the submissive role of women in Japan, Etsuko responds that :
It's not a bad thing at all, the old Japanese way.
This suggests that she may regret the decisions that she has made, but the story ends with a surprising revelation about the relationships of the various characters and with Etsuko, despite her own regrets, seeming to at least accept the enthusiasm with which her daughter Nicki embraces the West's cultural freedom.
Ishiguro's first novel is similar in narrative style to the much better known Remains of the Day. Both stories are told by somewhat unreliable narrators, who are certainly giving us an incomplete version of events, though we don't know whether they are lying to themselves at the same time. Remains of the Day benefits greatly from two elements that give it a dramatic tension which is sadly lacking here. First, there's the rise of Nazi Germany in the background, which we know will eventually make Lord Darlington's efforts to keep England out of the War seem somehow tainted. Second, there's the almost unbearable non-courtship/courtship between Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton. In Pale View, we'd sort of like to understand the suicide, but it's never an imperative.
Opening Line: “Niki, the name we finally gave my younger daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father.”
Closing Line: “I smiled and waved to her.”
Quotes: “Etsuko, I’ve told you many times, what is of the utmost importance to me is my daughter’s welfare…. I’m a mother, after all. I’m not some young saloon girl with no regard for decency.”
Rating: Good.

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