Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Kazuo Ishiguro on Grim Fates and the Consolation of Memory in "Never let Me Go"

(This interview ran in the Denver Post in May 2005)

By Dylan Foley

At the opening of Kazuo Ishiguro’s sixth novel “Never Let Me Go” (Knopf, $25), Kathy H. is a 31-year-old woman living in a dreary 1990s England. She drives around the country going to surgical recovery centers, helping people cope with the aftermath of their organ donations. Kathy’s only joy is going back to the memories of her time at Hailsham, a country boarding school, where she was sheltered and had deep friendship and love.

As the novel progresses, it eventually becomes clear that Kathy is a clone and that she takes care of other clones that are being used as live organ donors. By writing a brooding literary novel that is part Aldous Huxley’s futuristic “Brave New World” and part Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” Ishiguro is exploring love, friendship and desire to live among those cut down young.

For Ishiguro, it was the image of doomed young people that came first. “Oddly, the whole thing started 15 years ago,” says Ishiguro, from his London home. “I have versions of these doomed young people that I called ‘students.’ I didn’t quite know where these students had come from or where they were headed. The Cold War had recently ended, but I was playing with the idea of an atomic bomb in the story.”

Ishiguro put the students aside and wrote another novel, “The Unconsoled.” When he picked them back up, he placed them in a modern England.

It was the issue of mortality that interested Ishiguro more than cloning. “We are organically doomed to last at most 80 or 90 years,” said the 50-year-old Ishiguro, who won the 1989 Booker Prize for his novel “Remains of the Day.” “There is a context to life, and that is how we try to make all of our big decisions--how we love, our friendships, where our values lie. If we foreshortened the whole thing to 30 years, it would enable us to get a different perspective on the whole thing.”

In the novel, Kathy dwells on her close friend Ruth and the troubled Tommy, whom both girls love. From a young age, the children at Hailsham are told that they are special, that they have an important role to play in society. A dissident teacher reveals to them that they had better put their dreams of becoming office workers and truck drivers aside, for they will eventually donate their organs and die. The youths go to their grim fate with an eerie sense of duty and pride.

Reviews have labeled the book as science fiction. “I don’t really know what you’d call it,” chuckles Ishiguro. “I have nothing against science fiction. Some of the greatest movies have been science fiction, like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” or Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Instead of science fiction, Ishiguro says that he prefers to think of the cloning story as an alternative history. “I drew a parallel between nuclear physics and cloning,” he says. “By the 1950s, we were already in the absurd situation of being able to destroy each other many times over. I picked another equally absurd situation. If we had made scientific breakthroughs in a different direction, we could have found ourselves in an equally improbable, morally astonishing situation.

“I was interested that science can take us to morally strange positions,” he says. “We have a tendency to see science as an amoral force--we should go there first and see what happens. It has also interested me to what levels of cruelty and injustice society is willing to put up with, if the benefits of science are big enough.”

Besides the benefits of moral investigation, Ishiguro says that alternative history made for less work. “The alternative history idea appealed to me more because I didn’t relish the the idea of inventing the minutiae of a futuristic society or a galaxy far, far way,” he explains. “I didn’t want to imagine futuristic cars, streets and cup holders.”

To develop the grim countryside and towns of “Never Let Me Go,” Ishiguro took the England he knew from the 1970s and 1980s and twisted it. “If I’m going to distort a landscape, it helps if I am familiar with it,” he says. “I basically bleached it out. I described everything with overcast skies, empty roads and abandoned farms. It wasn’t a lush, wealthy England.”

As Kathy and her schoolmates try to love and create normal lives on the cusp of and during their donations, Ishiguro says it enabled him to examine how in society, people often accept their fate, no matter how bleak. “We don’t often have a clear perspective in how we fit into the larger society,” says Ishiguro. “We tend to accept what we get. Maybe we should be more angry about our lot.”

As her friends start succumbing to the organ harvesting, Kathy retreats further into her memories of her idealistic days at school. “Kathy is very innocent,” says Ishiguro. “Her memory of Hailsham and the people become a kind of consolation. I wanted a certain poignancy to come out of that. That was her childhood, where she felt protected and happy. It becomes a source of comfort.”

With Kathy, Ruth and Tommy as the central characters, Ishiguro used the three to explore the bonds of love and friendship. “I didn’t really think of it as a love triangle, but that is what it is,” says Ishiguro. “I wanted to portray Tommy and Kathy as having a quiet, genuine love, not necessarily a big sexual passion. They’ve known each other since they were very little, and loved each other very deeply without knowing it.”

Though Ruth and Kathy have a somewhat tortured friendship, it is deep. “They have a shared experience that gives it depth, though it is a difficult friendship. I wanted to celebrate friendship on one hand and love on the other.”

Despite the inevitable trip to the slaughterhouse, Ishiguro was concerned with his characters’ decency. “It is a bleak background, yes we are mortal and we are doomed,” he notes. “Against this background, I wanted to show people being very decent. They are flawed individuals, but essentially decent.

“In my other books, like ‘Remains of the Day,’ I’ve focused on the negative aspects of people, and have created such monstrous characters,” he says. “Though it might seem odd for a bleak and sad book, it was a much more positive experience writing it.

“I was trying to celebrate human beings,” he says. “We think that if we find true love, that will take the sting out of dying. I wanted these kids to have their own version of this myth.”

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