It took me more than a decade to revisit Kazuo Ishiguro after devouring “The Remains of the Day” and “The Artist in the Floating World”. The Nobel Committee whose citation for this newest laureate states that this writer “who with his novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”, led me to reconnect with him and tackle his first of them all, “A Pale View of Hills”.
A Pale View of Hills is a story of a twice-widowed woman Etsuko living in the English countryside whose first daughter from the first marriage committed suicide. The story brings back old memories of her strange friendship with a woman named Sachiko in post-war Nagasaki, who has a daughter Mariko. Absurdly, the pattern of relationship from the past is strangely similar to Etsuko’s with her daughter Mariko.
The novel’s unfolding of events in the life of the protagonist approximates a Proustian-style remembering but with a haunting and delicate charm. It is a remembering of pseudo-macabre events in a city with the face of death as an ever-present backdrop that nobody wants to talk about. At the same time, the unfolding of the layers of memory of the protagonist could also be a psychological projection or unconscious validation of her conspicuous uninvolvement with her second daughter Keiko.
As a master story teller, Ishiguro deftly inhabits the tormented psyche of a resilient mother in a long spell of longing for that resolute memory, of standing on a harbor of the ill-fated Japanese city looking at the distant hills. The power of prose is so palpable in this book, without being melodramatic nor nauseating. The scenes slowly build up tensions and in clean and sharp twists cut through with a precise cut on the aorta of emotions – spilling blood in shocking fashion, seppuku-like.
Undoubtedly, Ishiguro’s prose is minimalist and lackadaisically bare, yet fluid in its full movement that reminds you of the flight of a dozen cranes from a placid lake haiku-perfect in its stillness. His prose depicts the distilled late afternoon light that streams through the half-opened windows and lucidly illuminates the characters’ often stoic expressions. There is an origami-like unfolding of various layers of memory devices here – memory within a memory or memory within a person’s remembered memory. Yet despite these meta-technical apparatus, the reader feels secure and is encouraged to continue to walk barefoot on the tatami to take part in the subdued conversations and partake of the tea.
Relationships here are framed with a posture of calibrated distance, with soulful estimation of gestures, with coldness so staggering and profuse with irony. As a reader, one senses a feeling of eeriness with the soft echoes of the ominous parting as one progresses to the next chapter. The image of the hill looms loud. Yet louder still is the view from the hill on the catastrophic destruction that was inflicted by humanity’s genius, which is brilliantly captured by Ishiguro. There is just so much sadness and creeping violence in the words left unspoken by the characters in this modern-day kabuki.
Thank you Ishiguro for “A Pale View of Hills”. You are both Dante and Virgil who guide us into the realms of hell and purgatory and gift us with the experience of “tormented meditation”.