Unreliable, Round Two

Drinking: Americano. Listening to: Rhiannon Giddens, There is No Other, then Joy Williams, Front Porch.

In response to my post on Kazuo Ishiguro’s unreliable narrators, my brother asked if Ishiguro’s work showcases the impossibility of getting outside your own history to see your self and culture clearly. His entry point is An Artist of the Floating World, wherein the titular artist cannot let go of his belief in the glory of the Japanese empire and his work in honor of it. And with this question my mind fell down a rabbit of hole of counter-examples and complications, deepening my appreciation of Ishiguro’s recurring representation of the subjectivity of self and truth.

Now that I’ve finished Remains of the Day I recognize many similarities between the artist, Masuji Ono, and the butler Stevens. Both of them paper over information from their pasts that would upend their beliefs in who they are. In the case of Masuji Ono, my brother is on to something. The world has shifted around him and so has its perception of Ono and his work and the world in which he made it. Culture makes accomplices of us all.

Conversely, others in Stevens’ life can recognize injustice when they see it. Miss Kenton sees the evil in dismissing the two housemaids because they are Jewish, and while she fails to make good on her promise to resign, the event and her own failure haunt her. So while simmering in the stew of history as it’s happening makes it hard to see the supper for the carrots, as it were, people do have greater or lesser capacities for or willingness to see and work against evil.

And that becomes the essential question: are we unable or unwilling to see reality? Yes, culture shapes and limits our perceptions. History shapes and limits our perceptions. Experience shapes and limits our perceptions. But to what extent are we complicit in our own delusions?

I take this question very much to heart, which may explain my fascination with Ishiguro’s work. How can I know that what I tell myself about myself, about the world, is true? How can I be a good person if culture and historical situation make it impossible to be sure what that means? These questions haunt me because they are impossible to answer satisfactorily.

Ishiguro’s narrators stand in differing levels of power and privilege, which modifies how we perceive their limitations. This likely explains why I couldn’t get as into When We Were Orphans, with its affluent narrator so obsessed with his personal loss that he cannot recognize the literal war wrought by Imperialism all around him. It’s an interesting point but not very likable for that.

Both Stevens and Ono are vassals, serving and shoring up the powerful but not among them. This positioning makes them particularly interesting case studies for how our own circumstances limited what we can know and be responsible for.

On the other hand, Kathy of Never Let Me Go is legitimately oppressed, making her inability to recognize the evils an interesting case study in the power of culture over our minds. Simultaneously, if there was no system of creating clones for the use of non-clones, there would be no Kathy, no Ruth or Tommy, and what is Kathy supposed to do with that fact?

All of Ishiguro’s narrators can seem more or less sympathetic depending on how you’re looking at them at any given time. Yet in thinking of these books on a trajectory, it seems that in exploring this question of self-delusion and complicity Ishiguro moved from narrators and circumstances that are less sympathetic to those that are more complicated. It’s as if he started with a question: What’s it like inside a person that doesn’t recognize the historical wrongs he helps perpetuate? And then said: But if they were in this situation? What if this happened to them? What if they were the victim, would they be able to see or do anything about that? Making it more complicated with each new questioning.

Which brings us to The Buried Giant where Ishiguro abandoned first person narration for the first time in a novel, (from what I can tell having not yet read A Pale View of the Hills or The Unconsoled). Buried Giant overtly explores historical forgetting and cultural memory loss, and it is both everyone’s and no one’s fault because forgetting is what people do (also dying but that’s for a different day). Perhaps Ishiguro has come to a place of empathy for our inability to not delude ourselves. Empathy but not absolution, as Buried Giant portrays forgetting and self-delusion as the great unavoidable tragedy of human life.