Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills – Thoughts on a Roundabout Narrative

Ishiguro in Stockholm. Picture taken from Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Frankie Fouganthin

Recently, I finished Nobel Lit Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills (APVH), and, in a way, it came at just the right moment. For a while now, I’ve been thinking about that whole idea of writing ‘roundaboutly’. It’s something I might have mentioned earlier in – for example – my analysis of a chapter from A Norwegian in the Family, where I outlined how Dan wrote ‘around’ historical subjects like the American elections, in order to pick the best point of entry. The idea itself was first taken from Alex Sheremet’s review of Nabokov’s book Mary – where he characterizes great art as such:

“…Nabokov lived in one place only: his imagination. A few may argue that’s a sign of a great artist, and they’d be right. It is a sign, but not a landing. It is the entrance to a movie theater, but not one of the dozen side doors, where the most cunning sneak in, and make you feel cheated. It is a cocoon. It is, in brief, a hint, or an impetus, but what’s potential without principle, anyway? Art is bound by rules. Good artists break them, like the kids sneaking in through the back, smiling before you even walk in. But, artists need to break things intelligently, and, even more than that, with meaning.”

And, even though I’ve written quite a bunch about it – the concept still existed in some kind of haze. Mere inklings of what could be possible, rather than a hardened understanding of it. In a way, Ishiguro’s book (or, rather, his overall corpus and repeated themes) – helped in pointing a way (though, not the way) of understanding those many side-entrances. Part of it comes from an interview of his as to how he came up the structure and techniques of the book itself. The interview is found in a book – Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro – but I managed to grab the excerpt from the comments section of a blog post:

“In [A Pale View of Hills], I was trying something rather odd with the narrative. The main strategy was to leave a big gap. It’s about a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who is exiled in Britain in middle age, and there’s a certain area of her life that’s very painful to her. It has something to do with her coming over to the West and the effect it has on her daughter, who subsequently commits suicide. She talks all around it, but she leaves that as a gap. Instead, she tells another story altogether, going back years and talking about somebody she once knew. So the whole narrative strategy of the book was about how someone ends up talking about things they cannot face directly through other people’s stories. I was trying to explore that type of language, how people use the language of self-deception and self-protection”

And this excerpt perfectly sums up the book in question. It’s a story about an elided narrative, made manifest by the narrator talking about other events that stand parallel to that main thing. Because of that huge gap that seems to seep through all the events, the reader cannot help but begin a search for connections, and cohesions of meaning as to what this concealed story is. For example, there’s the title itself, and the image of the hills that appear within, and how its development across the novel syncs with the trajectory of Etsuko’s mind across the whole span of the book.

Yet, this is only a path – and one that Ishiguro has mastered, culminating in his most famous work Remains of the Day. We know that skirting around the main narrative with sly allusion is not the be-all-and-end-all of how to attain great artistic subtlety. This is a trap that many artists, like those who indulge in heavy intertextuality and esotericism (Nabokov etc…), are too quick to fall into. What sets APVH apart from all of those other books is the clean style of its prose, and how it hews to human character while maintaining its elusive narrative. Etsuko’s restrained speech and repression in the novel is consistent with the muted personality established for her, as seen in her interactions with the other characters. With the above linked blog post, you can see a certain pitfall that readers might fall into – they treat the book like some sort of grand mystery novel, merely being satisfied with the apparent answer – the plot conclusion – rather than the deeper answers that APVH reveals through its structure, such as the importance of moving on past one’s repressions, and how characters react to the idea of Japan, and how the macro-theme of Japan itself mingles with the micro-narrative of Etsuko’s own struggles.

Indeed, let’s look at the book’s core moment – the ‘plot twist’ – which appears at the end of the penultimate chapter of the book. I apologize for those people who care about stuff like spoilers – but – it shouldn’t matter since great literature isn’t defined by the flow of the narrative and its twists and turns, but how it coheres. For those who don’t want to be spoiled, though, you can stop reading here.

So, the entirety of the book centres around Etsuko – a Japanese survivor of the war living in England, and whose first daughter, Keiko, committed suicide. She refuses talk much about her daughter for most of the book, but recounts a woman she met back in Nagasaki called Sachiko. It’s through talking about Sachiko, and her daughter Mariko – that she is able to indirectly broach on her own daughter’s death, and other dark feelings inside her. In the penultimate chapter, Etsuko has some sort of dream-vision where she sees an unnamed girl, which initially seems to be Mariko. Yet, in the dream, Etsuko talks to this girl with the same words and topics that Sachiko would have used to address Mariko. From there we get a hint of the unreliability of her narration – and how Sachiko might be Etsuko. A doppelganger created within her own head to make sense of Keiko’s death.

Of course, this makes the whole thing seem like a mystery novel – and the blog post immediately starts going on about possible plot interpretations of this twist. Yet, the point is missed in its entirety, for what matters is not that the two women are one and the same (although I feel it is quite unlikely, because the characterization for both characters are completely different and they are not exactly equivalent to the Jungian symbol-characters of a Hesse novel) – but that Etsuko is finally willing to approach a subject she has repressed throughout the entire novel. Furthermore, even after this reveal, the moderation and austere nature of the prose remains till the end. We get a nice poetic image of the child running off into the distance:

“The child began to run, her footsteps drumming along the wooden boards. She stopped at the end of the bridge and stood watching me suspiciously. I smiled at her and picked up the lantern. The child began once more to run.

A half moon had appeared above the water and for several quiet moments I remained on the bridge, gazing at it. Once, through the dimness, I thought I could see Mariko running along the riverbank in the direction of the cottage.”

All this implies a certain kind of peace although she remains in her restrained and moderate pose – an outgrowth of her personality, rather than a sudden schism. In the next chapter, she begins to make better connection with her current daughter, Niki, and the novel fades out on an ambiguous image of her smiling and waving to her daughter. There are no fireworks involved, but just an impression.

You can also think about the wrongheaded artistic cliché “art doesn’t answer questions, but asks them” – and while it’s true that we never get a definite answer as to what role Sachiko plays in Etsuko’s life, or what she is exactly, we do see certain answers glimmer when we reach the end and see this subtle shift in Etsuko’s mood, and we see certain answers when we think about her narrative in conjunction with the symbols, perpetuated by characters like Ogata-san and Shigeo Matsuda, about the fate of Japan after the war.

There is a lot to learn in analysing how Ishiguro put APVH together, and there’s also much to learn from its flaws – for the themes and the story itself, of the clash of Eastern & Western cultures and Sachiko’s characterization as a well-sketched, but rather typical tempestuous westernized woman (as well as a bunch of others) – feels like it’s running over the same subject matter that lots of other Japanese novels have touched upon, although done in the distinct style of Ishiguro’s unreliable narrator/memory focus + the restrained prose style. One day, I might have to read this again, in continuum with Remains of the Day, to chart out its development from one to the other.

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