Strange New World

5 minute read
JAMES INVERNE

Would the real Kazuo Ishiguro please stand up? The 50-year-old novelist is a tough man to classify. Born in Nagasaki, bred in Surrey (where he lived from the age of 5), he looks Japanese, but speaks with the accent of public-school England. Three of his six novels are set in the Far East, the other three explore the quintessence of Englishness. After the stately, hugely successful The Remains of the Day, which spawned the 1993 movie, Ishiguro went wild; his next two novels — The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans — subjected their characters to chaos, violence and injustice. His latest, Never Let Me Go (Faber and Faber; 263 pages), is crueler still. And so who is this author: English intellectual or Japanese sensei?

“I felt half English and half Japanese for a long time,” says Ishiguro, relaxing in the small cinema that’s the pride of his suburban London home. In the corner are three electric guitars, a reminder of his early, failed ambition to be a rock star. “My writing style is quite minimalist on the surface, with hints of conflict or tension tucked away,” he says. “That’s something I have in common with classic Japanese settings. It’s like a typical, old-fashioned Japanese house; it seems bare, but open a cupboard and all kinds of weird things come tumbling out.”

Weird things, indeed. In Never Let Me Go, teachers at an English boarding school in the late 1960s constantly tell the children that they are “special.” Only trouble is, “special” has a very special meaning at this particular school. The children are, in fact, clones, genetically engineered for a sinister purpose — to serve as organ donors. Sounds like the perfect setup for a kids-on-the-run sci-fi thriller.

But Ishiguro’s characters don’t do rebellion. This writer is fascinated by people simply making the best of their fates. So there are no chases through woods, no baying bloodhounds. Instead, the book takes on a cool, anthropological tone, inviting the reader to study these unusual creatures as if they were specimens in a jar — which makes it all the more of a jolt when you actually start to care about them.

As with all Ishiguro’s books, the main characters — a group of friends, led by Kathy H. and Tommy D. — remain outwardly calm, accepting their fates. Even when contemplating the grim end that being “special” has in store for them, they’re laconic. “I made my decision, and once I’d made it, I never wavered,” says Kathy matter-of-factly about taking the first step toward becoming a donor. The restrained, almost detached style, says the author, springs from his international roots and the similarities between his dual homes: “The two cultures overlapped. Home Counties England of the 1960s had very much the same stiff upper lip, restrained manners, social conformity feel of Japan. That’s partly what infuses my writing.”

But behind the facade of the ordinary is the extraordinary trauma of his hometown. The atomic bomb was hardly spoken of in Nagasaki when Ishiguro was a boy, but now his conversation is peppered with references to it. He describes the cloning debate as “the same as nuclear physicists must have felt before developing the bomb. We’re aware of tremendous potential benefits, and tremendous dangers.” He thinks Nagasaki’s comeback is a testament to human endurance and creativity. “It’s become a symbol of regeneration,” Ishiguro says. “It shows that societies go on, even after individuals have made mistakes.”

Still, the pressures that attended the success of The Remains of the Day — perhaps reopening wounds he didn’t know were there — brought Ishiguro a sense of foreboding he couldn’t shake: “My life suddenly became much more chaotic. I realized that we can’t control our lives. Life might just pick you up and drop you somewhere else. You just have to dignify the position you land in, because life is short, and you can’t defer death.”

That feeling suffuses Never Let Me Go. People have manufactured a class of clones to extend their own lives, and in so doing made mortality even more vivid and imminent. The clones’ struggle to squeeze an entire life span into a couple of decades makes the book at once exhausting and moving. “The memories I value most, I don’t see them ever fading,” Kathy muses at 31, a year after most clones have already been harvested. The struggle to enjoy life as the time bomb of mortality ticks is a challenge we all face. So when Kathy talks about “just how lucky” she and the other clones have been to live as long as they have, Ishiguro seems to be reminding us — and reminding himself — to seize the day, for tomorrow we die.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com