A PALE VIEW OF HILLS by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber, 1982)

paleviewofhills72436I can’t remember why , after reading and enjoying ‘Remains Of The Day’ in 1989, I didn’t follow this up by immediately seeking out other books by Kazuo Ishiguro. Maybe I was swayed by negative reviews of his other novels or perhaps I dipped into one without any real committment.

Certainly, if I had been looking for fast-paced fiction with a clear linear narrative structure I would have been disappointed. Ishiguro’s writing is built around emotional reflections rather than being preoccupied with standard plot-driven devices.

I have come to recognize that patience is a virtue when it comes to reading. Writers that are superficially accessible are usually the least rewarding. Thankfully, therefore, I’ve belatedly discovered how rich and powerful Ishiguro’s other novels are.

The Nobel-Prize winning author moved to England from Japan when he was just five and was raised in a Japanese speaking home. The influence on this on his writing style is evident although hard to pinpoint with any precision. Perhaps it comes from the detached voice that some (myself included) have mistaken for coldness. His method probably stems in part from an immersion in the classic English style of composition that thrives on understatement. What is not stated is often as important as what is.

In the Japanese sections of ‘A Pale View Of Hills’, Ishiguro’s debut novel, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki obviously had a traumatic effect on daily lives of the citizens who survived but this horrific event is not explicitly mentioned until page 137 of this 183 page novel.

Like Alice In Wonderland, Ishiguro knows very well that people say what they mean but don’t always mean what they say. He has stated: “I’m more interested in what people tell themselves happened than in what actually happened”. This is crucial to understanding what might be going on in the head of two-time widower Etsuko, the novel’s central character.

We learn from the start that Keiko, the eldest of her two daughters, has committed suicide by hanging herself. Etsuko is reluctant to dwell upon this but at the same time she recognizes that “It is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things”.

The lyrics to the classic song, ‘The Way We Were’ tell us that “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget” but Ishiguro knows that this isn’t the whole story.

Memories are just as likely to be reinvented to make them easier to live with. This may reach the point that we begin to believe the embellished version of events rather that what really happened. This subconscious manipulation of the past is what seems to be going on with Etsuko.

The setting of the novel switches between this elderly woman’s comfortable home in southern England in the early 1980s and the time when she lived in Japan in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. The book’s title refers to hills of Inasa seen from Etsuko’s apartment window in Nagasaki.

Etsuko recalls a prickly friendship with the fiercely independent Sarhiko in Japan while she was pregnant with Keiko. Sarhiko’s husband was killed by the bomb and she is raising her ten-year-old daughter, Mariko, in what appears to be a careless and irresponsible manner. This is shocking to Etsuko who holds the conventional belief that motherhood makes a woman’s life worthwhile.

Mariko is often left to roam away on her own even though there have been a spate of child murders in the neighbourhood. In recollections of taking on the role of Mariko’s protector there are gaps in what she remembers and she appears to unconsciously blocking out key details. Her reluctance to dwell too deeply on the past leads her to reflect “Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing”.

She tells Niki, her younger daughter, a dream of a girl on a swing but then she later realizes “the little girl isn’t on a swing at all. It just seemed like that at first”. If she wasn’t swinging, could she actually be thinking of a girl found hanging from a tree in Nagasaki and, if so, this has a disturbing parallel with the tragic fate of her own daughter. The identity of this other girl is never revealed nor is it clear if her death was suicide or murder.

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Kazuo Ishiguro

The novel’s concern over the accuracy, or otherwise, of history also determines how the Japanese nation as a whole has come to be perceived. Etsuko’s second husband was English and she remembers that “despite all the impressive articles he wrote about Japan, my husband never understood the ways of our culture”.

In Nagasaki, a former friend of her first husband,Shigeo Matsuda, is reprimanded for being critical of Japanese actions and values; her ex-father-in-law comments bitterly: “We lost the war because we didn’t have enough guns and tanks, not because our people were cowardly, not because our society was shallow”.

The deceptive simplicity of Ishiguro’s writing means that many of the novel’s subtleties can easily be missed. I certainly don’t pretend to have picked up all the nuances and possible interpretations. In fact, this is one of those books that needs to be read more than once to appreciate fully. Even then, as with any remembrances of things past, ambiguities and uncertainties are bound to remain.

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