Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Ishiguro

This year’s Nobel Prize in Literature winner may be a name unfamiliar to Arabic speaking audiences, but he has truly earned the honour, writes Mohamed Salmawy


اقرأ باللغة العربية


Just as I was about to write this week’s column, I learned that the British novelist of Japanese descent, Kazuo Ishiguro, had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. This, of course, required a change of plan. So, I set aside the topic I was going to write about and turned to this great writer who had previously won the British Man Booker Prize for fiction, which is one of the most prestigious awards for novels written in English, regardless of the nationality of the author. Although Ishiguro has only written seven novels so far, every one of them took the world by storm among both critics and the international reading public. Three of the novels have been adapted into successful films.

At 62, Ishiguro is relatively young for a Nobel Prize laureate. Most of his predecessors were in their eighties or nineties when they won the award. Born in Nagasaki in 1954, he moved with his family to Surrey, UK, in 1960, at the age of five. He grew up in Britain and acquired British nationality.

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of Ishiguro as a novelist is his utter ingenuity. The first novel of his that I read was Never Let Me Go, published in 2005. I was astounded by its unconventional theme and awestruck by how tightly structured it was and by its vivid and seamless style — characteristics common to all his works. The novel, itself, is set in a boarding school that, at first, appears ideal. Students are raised under the best regimes of diet, exercise and hygiene. Sound health is paramount. As the narrative proceeds, some of the students learn that they are clones carefully developed from high-quality human samples. They also discover the frightening reason behind their upbringing in the model school: they were bred to be organ donors for those who had paid the enormous sums to have them cloned and raised.

While the plot leads us through the growing up pains of the students and, particularly, the adolescent love of one of the protagonists for a classmate who does not reciprocate her feelings, the story simultaneously explores a crucial philosophical question: how scientific advancement has come to dominate people’s lives in the modern world, transforming human beings into instruments at the service of science rather than the reverse. The novel portrays how mankind’s exposure to modern scientific discoveries and inventions has robbed people of their will and control over their lives.

As epitomised in the novel, their very bodies are not their own property. Some critics have categorised Never Let Me Go as a work of science fiction. But this is incorrect. Cloning is not something out of the realm of fiction; it is a scientific reality. Only the situation conceived in the novel is imaginary: the boarding school created specially to raise human clones. But is not such imaginative invention and fantasy a characteristic of all fiction? Science fiction, meanwhile, presents us with futuristic scientific realities and inventions that do not exist in our lives, at least at the time when the novel is written. A famous example is H G Wells’ “time machine”, the miraculous invention that is capable of “time travel” into the remote past or distant future. Time machines do not exist; cloning does and it has been applied in numerous experiments.

Remains of the Day (1989), perhaps Ishiguro’s most famous novel, could not be more different from Never Let Me Go. It revolves around a butler in the service of an aristocratic British lord and whose overwhelming sense of loyalty to his employer and dedication to his job compels him to set aside his personal feelings. The novel probes a world of emotional conflict that has no connection to modern scientific theories. In the film version of the novel, the butler is played by the matchless Anthony Hopkins, in what is one of this actor’s most acclaimed roles. The other protagonist, the former housekeeper, is played by the great Emma Thompson.

Another of Ishiguro’s novels, When We Were Orphans (2000), was also adapted into film like the two abovementioned works. His other novels are, A Pale View of the Hills (1982), Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Unconsoled (1995) and his last novel The Buried Giant (2015).

Ishiguro had been nominated several times for the Booker Prize before actually winning it in 1989 for Remains of the Day. This year, his name had not been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize. He, himself, had not known that he had been nominated for this award before. Interestingly, there was a Japanese writer whose name had been mooted as a contender this year: the celebrated, award-winning Haruki Murakami (67). More prolific than Ishiguro, Murakami’s works have been translated into virtually all languages of the world. That the Nobel ultimately went to Ishiguro has probably come as a relief to those critics who, last year, were shocked that the award went to Bob Dylan, whose music and lyrics influenced musicians and audiences around the world.

I have a strong feeling that Arab readers are not sufficiently familiar with Kazuo Ishiguro. I have heard that the excellent translator Talaat Al-Shayeb has translated Remains of the Day into Arabic and appended an exhaustive introduction. If any other Arabic translations of Ishiguro exist, I am unaware of them. I find this sad. Ishiguro is unquestionably one of the most important names in the art of contemporary fiction in the world today. To some, the juxtaposition between Ishiguro and Murakami works in favour of the former, the quality of whose work, regardless if the varying themes and styles, has remained, in my opinion, consistently outstanding, whereas that of Murakami has fluctuated considerably.

To those who would like to familiarise themselves with Ishiguro, I strongly recommend Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro (2008). A collection of interviews conducted with the latest winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, it offers a storehouse of insights into his ideas, his art and many other aspects of his life and career. Now here is another book that I wish would be translated into Arabic. 

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