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Catching up with Kazuo Ishiguro and the British Class System

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Mamta revisits a novel of the 2017 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, and reviews it exclusively for Different Truths.

With the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature being awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro on Thursday, October 5, 2017, I reached out to rediscover his sole book in my study, a book that I had read many years ago.

The Japanese idea of mono no aware, literally meaning the pathos of things, points to impermanence, a transient wistfulness at their passing as well as a longer gentle sadness about this state being the quintessential reality of life.

Ishiguro weaves this idea beautifully into the narrative, The Remains of the Day, awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, 1989.

“For a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I may adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?”

These penultimate lines are musings of the protagonist, about his bland, blinkered past, in his sunset years. This beautifully realised novel is about an immaculate and impeccable English butler, Stevens, who served loyally at Darlington Hall for three decades. His new American employer, Mr. Farraday gives him time to take a break, instead of being ‘locked up in the house’, while the master would be away in the US.

What follows is a long drive into the countryside during which he looks back at his life; his former employer Lord Darlington whom he served faithfully and Miss Kenton, the love he lost because of his insularity.

Straddling the two worlds of Britain and Japan, comfortablyIshiguro’s double identity gives his character, Stevens, the ability to control emotions which are considered elegant and dignified in the British and Japanese society. Stevens, the archetype of restraint and equipoise, states emphatically, “Great butlers will not be shaken out by external events, however, surprising, alarming or vexing”.

The Remains of the Day shares a fascination with memory, identity, with the tension between obligation and desire,” opined Times book critic David L. Ulin. There are layered references to the Second World War; Lord Darlington being influenced by  the fascist ‘Black Shirts’ and his warm relations with Germans,  getting Stevens involved in terminating the services of  the Jewish staff serving in the household, a decision foisted on Stevens which he had to carry out as his master’s will. The post-war England and his trip give him greater doubts about the true nature of his former master and graver doubts about his own faith in the man he served. His subtly disturbing recollections were a rediscovery of his own mistakes, his journey being an inward one too.

The butler that I had enjoyed reading about in childhood was Cadbury, in the comics of Richie Rich. Cadbury’s presence loomed large in Rich’s household and he was forever saving and serving his master, Mr. Rich and his family.  In school and college, the hilarious account of dilettante Bertram ‘Bertie’ Wooster and his genius wry humoured valet Jeeves tickled and P.G. Wodehouse was always the first refuge on a boring vacation.

Reading Ishiguro’s sketch of the story of a fastidious and repressed butler in post-war Britain was a different experience altogether.

The first person account highlights human failings. Ishiguro allows Stevens to reveal his flaws implicitly as the narrative moves on. A sense of pathos is created in the mind of the reader, with Steven’s actions and at times with his inaction. Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, tries to come close to him but he is so caught up in his ritualistic duties that he fails to see her as a person. Stevens is a man who denies the right to love and be human. There is a tendency to mistake having any emotions at all with weakness.

Towards the end of his journey, a chance meeting with a stranger thaws Stevens’s stiffness. The unknown man incites Stevens to ‘enjoy’ as he had done his day’s work. “You can put your feet up and enjoy it,” said he to Stevens.

Stevens resolves to be more communicative when he returns to his duty, realising that bantering is not such a foolish thing to indulge in and is in fact ‘the key to human warmth’, better than being stoic. The denouement, making him practice bantering skills with renewed effort, brings comfort and end to his emotional trauma. 

 Flawlessly written with charm, lucidity, and simplicity, The Remains of the Day is a beautiful narrative of spiritual imprisonment, a brief tour of history and an understanding of the British psyche, all fused together into making it a perfect read.

©Mamta Joshi

Photos from the Internet

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