A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
19 January, 2011
You all know how much I love Kazuo Ishiguro, right? Especially The Remains of the Day which is a sublime novel of repressed emotions and mistaken notions of duty. So I was really looking forward to reading A Pale View of Hills for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4. It’s a well written story which addresses some interesting themes, but can someone tell me what it’s all about??? Because I finished it completely confused with a big question mark hanging over my head.
The cover says it’s ‘a story of betrayal and survival amidst the wasteland of Nagasaki‘. There is a supernatural and almost gothic flavour to Ishiguro’s tale, yet I finished the book with a feeling of ambiguity, almost like when I finished Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. If you’ve read it, you’ll probably understand what I mean. I’m not really sure what happened there.
The story is essentially that of Etsuko, a Japanese widow living in the UK who has just lost her eldest daughter Keiko to suicide. Niki, Keiko’s half-British sister, is visiting from London. As the two bicker and pass the days together, avoiding Keiko’s old room, Etsuko is reminded of post-war Nagasaki when, pregnant with Keiko, she befriends the enigmatic Sachiko and her daughter Mariko who lived in a cottage across from her new flat.
The tale is a collage of Etsuko’s life in Britain after her daughter’s suicide, her earlier home life in Japan, with her first husband Jiro and her father-in-law who is visiting, and her strange, fragile friendship with Sachiko. Ishiguro brilliantly conveys the tension and the strict patriarchal family life where the husband is the king of his domain. And Sachiko is sufficiently selfish with an agenda of her own to better her life abroad. And you feel sorry for Mariko, unsure about Sachiko’s love for her, and traumatised by the war. I liked Ishiguro’s treatment of contemporary British life shown through Niki, yet there seems to be a real absence of companionship and familial love in this novel.
In some ways I was reminded of the translations of Tanizaki and Endo which I have been reading the last few years. It’s as if Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki but brought up in the UK since he was a child and writes in English, is trying to write a novel as though it is written by a Japanese writer and translated into English. It has that same sparseness and abruptness that we have all become familiar with. It’s very different from the rich and beautiful prose of The Remains of the Day and I was rather surprised by it. In some ways Ishiguro has created THE Japanese novel but the sharp contrast of the chapters based on Etsuko’s later life in England (which I rather liked) plus the gothic/supernatural element in the story lifts it from what is expected.
The ending which meshed Etsuko’s earlier memories with her present circumstances reveals the unreliability of the main character. Who is the story really about? Did Sachiko really exist? I’m no longer sure. Ishiguro leaves a lot to your imagination (for instance we never find out how Etsuko came to leave Japan) and makes you want to re-read the book again just to check whether you have missed anything. Come to think of it, it’s quite a spectacular book, if not something I expected.
I’m currently half way through Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Picking Bones from Ash which I’m finding enchanting and quite different to what I expected as well. Can you see I’m trying to squeeze in one final book for this challenge which ends on January 31st?