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10 - Kazuo Ishiguro: Alternate Histories

from Part III - Postmodernism, Globalisation and Beyond

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2017

Daniel Bedggood
Affiliation:
Senior Lecturer in English, Cinema Studies and Digital Humanities at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand
James Acheson
Affiliation:
University of Canterbury
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Summary

Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese-born British writer, has built on his early success as one of the bright young writers of the late twentieth century, his recent mature work and cinematic adaptations adding to his reputation as a consummate artist and interrogator of social and individual crises. If his earlier work established a pattern of careful and creative historiography, personalised through the eyes of flawed narrators, his writing since the turn of the century has both extended and complicated such features, reflecting his taste for diversity, inconclusiveness and mistrust of nostalgia. This chapter looks especially at his recent work, focusing on Ishiguro's postmodern turn to the past and alternate histories and, in particular, to his narrative decolonisation, detection and misdirection in When We Were Orphans (2000); his speculation on alternatives in Never Let Me Go (2005); and his establishment of relationships between history and myth, trauma and forgetting in The Buried Giant (2015). In all of these works, I examine his development of unreliable first-person narrative traits, his manipulations of generic expectation and development, his manipulation of register, and his acts of narrative elision as techniques that serve his play on differences between individual and cultural memory.

His novels quite specifically interrogate contexts of history, part of what is perceived widely as ‘changes in the fundamental attitude of some historical fiction … related to a parallel narrative turn in historical writing’. Even though Ishiguro's first books appear to be purely historical novels, they arose from ‘moments in history that would best serve my purposes…. I was conscious that I wasn't so interested in history per se, that I was using British history or Japanese history to illustrate something that was preoccupying me.’ His use of history continues into his later work, whether that of mid to late twentieth century or more experimentally located in the dimly recalled Dark Ages; this fascination is often a vehicle for exploring personal trauma and the mechanisms of remembering, his works evincing the psychological effects of wider history on the individual. Such a use of the past is consistent with the postmodern resurgence in the interest in and engagement with history, notably by critics such as Linda Hutcheon, who has identified the development of a special postmodernist genre, historiographic metafiction.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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