Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born author of The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and five other acclaimed English-language novels, was awarded the Nobel Prize on Thursday.
No doubt, Ishiguro’s Catholic fans, myself included, heartily applauded the news. In striking contrast to many modern novelists, his deeply moral stories go to the heart of the human condition with a spare narrative style that hints at deeper forces beneath the surface.
Though he does not deal explicitly with religious faith, his moral vision is compatible with the Church's own insistence that the truth is knowable, and that we ignore it at great cost to our own human flourshing. Further, his stories convey a profound respect for the dignit inalienable dignity of each person and the sanctity of the conscience.
In each of his stories, mostly told in the first person, readers are faced with the same question: What leads fundamentally good people to make choices they will regret for the rest of their lives? In fits and starts, with the aid of their selective, often aging memories, Ishiguro’s characters come to terms with the pivotal moments of their past.
Yes, this is the stuff of real tragedy.
His characters’ struggles for clarity and for hope are enormously absorbing and ring true for readers who have traveled down the same path. That’s why Ishiguro is one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed English-language novelists writing today, and a brief look at three of his most celebrated novels will hopefully inspire more Catholics to read his fiction.
The Remains of the Day
In his best-known work, The Remains of the Day—later adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson—Stevens, a model butler, revisits the critical turning points of his long service to an English lord.
Stevens is clear about his own professional standard: “The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of 'dignity.’”
This professional code anchored his daily routine, but its limitations slowly come to light. On matters of great moment, the loyal butter deferred to his aristocratic employer, only to learn that this trust was misplaced. Meanwhile, a bond was formed with a feisty housekeeper, but their chance for happiness dissolved long before Stevens could unbend enough to acknowledge their mutual attraction. Looking back on these events in the evening of his life, he wonders if it is it too late to begin to live and love like a real man.
As with Ishiguro's other novels, Stevens' personal story also spotlights the broader values that have shaped his character. The class-bound conventions he rigidly observes are those of British society in the years leading up to the Second World War. But is his aristocratic master, a naive man who is manipulated by pro-Hitler forces to discourage British intervention, worthy of his butler's deference?
Never Let Me Go
In the novel, Never Let Me Go, the reader is drawn into the tangled relationships of young teenagers at a British boarding school. But the school is not what it seems. In time, the reader learns that the students are human clones, and they have been created for the purpose of donating their organs.
Their school is nothing more than a humane experiment; it doesn’t change the fact that they will die young. The story touches on the chilling educational pedagogy that prepares the young donors to accept their death sentence, while occasional perks, like unrestricted premarital sex, provide helpful distractions.
As they leave school and enter their early twenties, the end of their life draws near and the reader ponders whether their existence has been robbed of all human agency. Is it possible to love and be loved when so much has been taken from you?
In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, the old school friends take a road trip to a distant town. According to school mythology, this is the town where all the cherished playthings they have lost can be found. But they are on a fool’s errand, and we see that what they really seek is their birthright as human beings: love and family, freedom and responsibility. Their one initiative derailed, the friends cling to each other for comfort, as strangers eye them with indifferent curiosity.
Ishiguro has said that Never Let Me Go was inspired by his experience working with homeless people and observing their social interactions. What’s powerful about this dystopian story is that it draws the reader into a community that lives on the margins of the world, with diminished expectations that are rarely challenge—by them or anyone else. Never Let Me Go also portrays a Brave New World of “assisted reproduction,” where the powerful impose the rules of engagement for human clones who have been denied souls of their own.
The Buried Giant
Finally, it’s worth mentioning The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s most recent novel. This, too, is an examination of conscience, set in an Arthurian legend, with knights, ogres and dragons. A husband and wife leave their home and set out in search of their missing son.
Their journey, in a sense, is a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. Together, they attempt to recall the past so they can understand what has happened to their family and to their country. A sense of dread shadows their efforts, for they begin to hear references to a wartime conflict between Saxons and Pagans, and dark hints of genocide. Is it possible that they bear some responsibility for such atrocities? For additional reflection on this theme, read Humanum Review’s discussion of The Buried Giant here.
The novel considers how the memory of wartime violence and injustice can impede national reconciliation when peace is finally declared.
My friend Leonie Caldecott, the editor of the U.K. edition of Magnificat, and I have also discussed how Ishiguro deals with the interplay of memory and forgiveness in marriage, as well. Is it better to forget, for the sake of peace, or do we need to remember, to be reconciled in the truth and understand the lessons learned?
Slowly, the husband and wife in this story begin to confront their individual and joint responsibility for the dark events of the past, and their marital bond makes that conversation very personal and urgent.
“In a sense, the solidity of the nuptial life at the centre of the novel stands for the creative force, the solidarity of God which 'wipes away sin' in a cloud of unknowing, whilst knowing all,” Caldecott wrote me in an email Thursday.