It’s easy to fall of a cliff when talking about “unreliable narrators,” those character perspectives who a reader realizes at some point cannot be entirely trusted. Once you head down this path, it becomes very easy to start seeing every narrator as unreliable. David Copperfield? Was he born? Ishmael? Total charlatan! And what is “truth” anyway?
Once you’re tumbling through the metaphorical air like this, things get boring real fast. Fine, no narrator is reliable and there’s no such thing as objective truth (maybe). Now what?
On the other hand, you have the narrators of Kazuo Ishiguro, a master of oblique first-person narration. I love Ishiguro. I’m sure he’s not everyone’s cup of earl grey but when I’m in the mood for a certain kind of introspective melancholy wrapped around an idea he’s the one.
My first Ishiguro was the transcendent An Artist of the Floating World, followed by the astounding Never Let Me Go. I then read The Buried Giant, which only elevated him further in my estimation. Then I slogged through the less compelling When We Were Orphans. But I am only now getting to The Remains of the Day, arguably his most famous work.
In hearing the tale of the devoted butler Mr. Stevens, I had a realization about Ishiguro’s narrators. They are unreliable narrators but not in a typical way. Ishiguro’s narrators do not deliberately deceive me, the reader, instead that are always deceiving themselves. They are unreliable narrators of their own stories, and the point becomes unspooling that realization for the reader, and sometimes but not always for the narrator her or him self. Therein lies the fundamental tragedy at the heart of Ishiguro’s works.
Having this realization about Ishiguro and his narrators brings clarity to another book I read recently, The Witch Elm by Tana French. It was fine, I guess. Competent. But I realize now how much French attempts to do with her narrator in this book what Ishiguro does with his, and how far her novel falls short.
In Artist of the Floating World the painter Masuji Ono cannot reconcile his present in post-WWII (post-Empire, post-Atom bomb) Japan with his past life. Kathy from Never Let Me Go misperceives her friends as a way to avoid seeing the evils of the society and situation she’s born into. In The Buried Giant Axl and his wife Beatrice have literally forgotten who they are, a metaphor for the failure of collective historical memory. Each of these narrators tells their story in an open and compelling way that turns out to be fundamentally incorrect in ways that they do not, even cannot see. And each of these narratorial failings reveals something about how humans reject truth in order to survive uncontrollable circumstances.
Mr. Stevens on his motoring adventure—direct, honest, willing to admit misperceptions and shades of grey—seems set on a collision course with his own beliefs about his profession and, by extension, the world and his own identity. I’m pre-heartbroken for him and unable to look away.