I’ve dipped into the history books with this, Kazuo Ishiguro‘s second novel, written back in 1986. Spare, restrained and modest, it unfolds the tale of Masuji Ono, a painter forced by circumstances (Japan’s defeat in the second world war and by his family, two issues which are not unconnected in the novel) to re-assess his personal role and activities in the war as an advocate of, and propagandist on behalf of, Japanese imperialism.
There are obvious parallels here with The Remains of the Day, his next novel, and Ishiguro has himself acknowledged that it could be said about him that he had re-written the same novel three times, but I don’t want to go too far down that road: in some aspects of the setting and theme, and the observation of manners and position, certainly yes; but otherwise there are not a lot of similarities between Britain in the 1930s (as later recalled) and immediate post-war Japan.
Narrated by Ono himself, the story unfolds as a lesson of an atomised society beginning to reconstruct itself both humanly and literally. New people, and foreign powers, are in charge and individuals must respond to new approaches and unaccustomed, not to say strange, ways of relating with each other, as well as face up to their own activities and attitudes. The true extent of Ono’s role during the war is never made fully clear, but that is scarcely the point: societies are only able to emerge from such devastating periods where ordinary people are able to confront their own pasts and their own roles in what happens to others.
The telling of the tale is cautious, each word being deliberately placed and each event slowly revealed. It would, nevertheless, be a mistake to view the work as in any way inconsequential. The care taken in the telling of the tale acts as a focus for Japanese minimalism as well as a means of drawing attention to the anachronistic formality of Ono’s dealings with others in the face of a world which is rapidly marching onwards and in which all of us, regardless of our time, must carefully appraise our own position. In it, Ishiguro has written another significant novel, all the more so for its apparent, but absolutely misleading, slightness: this is a multi-layered work whose capacity to teach is just one of its strengths for the more grounded among us and one which will re-pay a second read.