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Kazuo Ishiguro: An artist of the world (.hindu)

The surprise winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is an abundantly deserving one

By awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to British-Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro this year, the Swedish Academy has pulled itself back to more classical criteria in deciding who makes the cut. While announcing the name, it strove to make this evident, even at the risk of reducing an appraisal of a great writer such as Ishiguro to a trite high school essay. “If you mix Jane Austen and Franz Kafka then you have Kazuo Ishiguro in a nutshell, but you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix,” said Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Academy. “Then you stir, but not too much, then you have his writings.” The Academy perhaps tried too hard given the criticism, and the awardee’s snub, that came its way last year when the prize went to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan; it had clearly been trying to push the envelope in capturing newer forms of narrative-telling, after bringing to the notice of a wider readership the brilliant Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich the year before for her oral histories dating back to the Soviet era. Ishiguro is more of a purist, repurposing the classical forms to, as the Academy said, produce novels of “great emotional force”. It added that they “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. In a body of work that also includes critically acclaimed short fiction, Ishiguro has consistently evoked the loss of coordinates that individual characters sense with the uncertainties of memory as well as of space and time.

Ishiguro’s credentials are impeccable. Strong, albeit strange and unreliable characters; spare prose, used to devastating effect; genres varying from science fiction to fantasy, with no book of his reading like the last. Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Ishiguro moved with his family to Britain when he was five. He was a part of the great burst of new fiction-writing in the country in the 1980s, as the talent of writers as diverse as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel came to the notice of a global readership. His earliest novels harked back to Japan, and they are still too little appreciated. But it was his third novel, The Remains of the Day, that stunned the literary world in 1989, also winning the Booker Prize. The story of an ageing butler, it evoked the difficulty of keeping one’s bearings in a shifting matrix of class, culture and history. Most of his characters understand displacement, a theme he keeps returning to in his books in different ways. Thus, memory, time, past and present are important signposts in the Ishiguro landscape. The names of his novels often indicate as much. These include his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, his most recent The Buried Giant, and his standout dystopian novel Never Let Me Go from 2005, about a community of clones raised only so that their organs may be harvested. In its moment of crisis, the Swedish Academy has pulled out a winner.

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