Nobel returns to mainstream literature

Ishiguro focuses sharply on the human condition

An important theme that has dominated the world’s consciousness in the recent past is migration, with people moving across countries to escape from war, strife and persecution. It may not be an accident that this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to an immigrant Japanese-English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, though the citation does not mention Ishiguro as an uprooted writer. Displacement and the pain of coming to terms with a new life have not figured prominently in Ishiguro’s writings, except in his first two novels, which had as their backdrop a Japan he had left as a five-year-old boy. The roots became weaker as the writer developed his vision. He became as English a writer as any born in England, in style, in language, and in the idiom of imagination. The Nobel committee saw in his work a mixture of Jane Austen, the most English of English writers, and Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, lighthouses of European imagination. But a sense of displaced life is seen deep under the surface of his work.

This year’s prize has again revived the debate about the Nobel committee’s preference for English or European writers. No-one would dispute that Ishiguro deserved the prize. But many would think that some others should not have been passed up. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o are thought to have missed the prize for no good reason. Ishiguro apologised to Atwood for his award. The Nobel committee has made some outrageous and forgettable selections in the past, but Ishiguro is not one of them. His prize may have been unexpected, but it was not shocking.

The prize for Ishiguro marks a return by the Nobel committee to mainstream literature after the award to singer and song-writer Bob Dylan last year and to Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich the previous year. The two decisions were unconventional but not devoid of merit. Ishiguro belongs to the classical tradition, and has shown great variety in his work. None of his works is like the previous one. Among all the writings, the one that stands out is The Remains of the Day, which came out in 1989, a masterful tale of individual and social relations and preservation of identity and human dignity, centring around the life of an English butler. It is an English story but is universal in its appeal. It is this sharp focus on the human condition that makes Ishiguro a great writer and worthy of the prize that he has been awarded with.

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