Thursday, November 09, 2017

On Kazuo Ishiguro, after the Novel Prize

Soon after the Swedish Academy announced the winner for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, a friend gave me a call to express his ardent displease about the winner, Japan-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.

“Yeah,” I said, “The Nobel Committee has a twisted sense of humour. See, everyone and their mothers were clamouring for Haruki Murakami to win. So the Nobel Committee said, fine, you want a Japanese author, we will give you a Japanese author, but not the one you want. Go ahead and criticise us.”

This is the thing about literary awards; there can never be a unanimous choice.

My friend guffawed on his phone speaker. “Murakami be damned,” he said, “There are still others who are more deserving.”

I know. My friend has a shortlist of deserving winners, starting with Syrian poet Adonis.

Now the word deserving got me thinking. Literary greatness is by and large subjective, influenced by tests. You may hate reading an author I love. It’s a plausible scenario and you cannot be blamed for it.

But the criterion of the Nobel Committee in awarding the Prize, however, is more idealistic, universal. Accordingly, the award is given to an author from any country or language who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” These are the exact words of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, whose enormous wealth supports the Prize.

Again, the concept of ‘idea direction’ can be subjective. Take the example of last year’s winner, Bob Dylan. His work is outstanding in an ideal direction, no denying that. But did he deserve to win the prize? Reams have been written about it. I admire Dylan. I can sing ‘like a rolling stone’ from memory. But I still cannot make up my mind about him a Nobel laureate. Blame it on my old-school education. I still cannot categorise song lyrics as ‘serious literature’, despite the fact I love them dearly. (I have stated this elsewhere. One of my early influences in writing poetry was the music of Jim Morrison, especially his album, ‘An American Prayer’. The song ‘Angels and Sailors’ haunted me for months and forced me to write my first serious poem — a bad one.) But I must concede that it was music first more than literature. The same way, Dylan’s songs are perfectly rhymed, yet, they are not really poetry. Without Dylan’s unique voice, the lyrics lose half their punch.

See, I told my friend, the Nobel Committee wanted to play safe this year after last year’s controversy. “Then why not your Murakami,” he asked, “he was the safest bet.”

That’s a good question. I think, as so called purveyor of culture, the Nobel Committee wants to stay away from popular names. I think this is what went against Murakami. He is the thinking man’s Paulo Coelho. I know many readers who dumped Marquez swear by Murakami’s magic realism. Personally, I have nothing against him. It’s indeed heartening to see a non-reader pickup a fat copy of ‘Kafka on the Shore’ and devour it.

But Nobel Committee likes its authors more nuanced, more highbrow, more officious. For example, in 2014, the Prize was given to French author Patrick Modiano, a write whom nobody had heard of outside of France (especially in the English speaking world). His first major translations appeared a year after the Prize.

Back to Ishiguro then, who became the second young author to win the Award, after Albert Camus. When I read this piece of trivia, I was tempted to compare Ishiguro’s influence with that of Camus’. It’s a fool’s errand. Camus’ existentialism was pronounced, all-pervasive. Ishiguro’s existentialism is more internal, more subtle, more local.

Ishiguro is a great writer, especially in his masterpiece ‘Remains of the Day’ (1989) (Read the last few pages of the book, when Mr Stevens meets Miss Kenton in a cafe after a hiatus to find out the author’s literary greatness.) The book won the Booker and was made into a well regarded film by Merchant-Ivory. I think the credit for the book’s enduring appeal also should go to Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thomson for their portrayal of Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton respectively. I love this book. But I don’t want to give Mr Ishiguro a Novel Prize for it.

Then there’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ (2005), a modern science fiction about love, also made into a moderately successful film. It’s a brilliant novel, which had its seed in a Michael Bay directed Hollywood action film ‘The Island’, and Ishiguro turned it into a meditation on love and death.

Ishiguro also wrote the screenplays for both the movies. He has written two other screenplays, ‘The Saddest Music in the World’ (2003) and ‘The White Countess’ (2005), and five more novels — ‘A Pale View of Hills’ (1982), ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ (1986), ‘The Unconsoled’ (1995), ‘When We Were Orphans’ (2000) and ‘The Buried Giant’ (2015) and a collection of short fiction ‘Nocturnes’ (2009). I have read none of those; for none of those created enough buzz for me to go and seek them out. (On an unrelated note, if you get a chance, I would urge you to sit through ‘The Saddest Music in the World’, directed by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. It will feel weird. But I will urge you to sit though it; it may be worthwhile.)
I greatly admire Kazuo Ishiguro, but him as a Novel Laureate? Taking a cue from Mr Stevens, I must not make my opinion heard.

Dibyajyoti Sarma
October 2017
New Delhi

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