This was my first Ishiguro, and I read it in four hours flat (one sitting- one short haul flight). It is a fast paced read. Without presuming to be a thriller, the book has an edge of the seat quality to it, and the sadness that permeates the book is too genuine to ignore.
The story is told by Kathy H a ‘donor’ who has been cloned along with hundreds of others for a purpose- to first care for similarly cloned donors, and then to donate their organs one by one, until they die or ‘complete’ (their life purpose). The narrative skips from our protagonist’s reminiscences of Hailsham- an exclusive boarding school that she attended- and her latter day experience of the world. These reminiscences are in the form of stories that go back and forth, spinning a web of nostalgia, and quite easily taking us into its awful centre. The stories centre around Kathy and two close friends- Ruth the willful, frightened girl who would much rather pretend the horror of their existence away and Tommy who struggles through his short life to keep his rage and outrage at bay. Kathy is the civilized pragmatist, and so far the survivor.
The premise is fantastic. The idea of liberally and wonderfully educated people subscribing to this dreadful design is hard to swallow. It would work if the school were a conditioning ground, or if the victims were brutalized into accepting their situation. This has happened through history. And it is not fair to the victims to question their subservience to apparently intolerable and sometimes incredible systems. But there is no indoctrination in Hailsham. The teachers are wonderful and love their pupils, the children are exposed to arts and humanities and science and have hopefully read about fascism and slavery. Yet, as a group they never question the system- even in order to achieve regular little desires like going to college or marrying a sweetheart. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas offers a more convincing explanation for this sort of unforced and unquestioned subservience. The clone-types in Mitchell’s future scenario are more humanoid than human, and drugged into accepting their state.
This seeming inconsistency continued to irritate me. As I tried to understand it, I picked up Ishiguro’s Booker winner- “The Remains of the Day”. The book concerns itself with an all too human butler of a ‘good man’ misguided enough to back Hitler. Heartbreaking as this story of a perfect English butler is, what was interesting to me was the parallel with NLG. The menacing overhang of a fascist system is palpable in both novels. For what else would you call a society that has a violent peace? Make soap out of bones, make people out of organs- it is systematic atrocity and narcosis that characterizes fascism.
A glimmer of understanding appeared through the clouds of confusion! Hesitatingly I propose that Ishiguro is deeply affected by the Second World War. I posit that he has tried to marry man’s day to day human experience with his brutal history. ‘Never Let Me Go’ talks of the working of an awful system through entirely plausible and comprehensible persons. The difference is that ‘Never Let Me Go’ is an elegy to the victims of oppression. ‘Remains of the Day’ tries and gets inside the head of normal, decent people who were part of the oppressing class. Is he fixated on Fascism in particular? I believe so, especially if you connect it up with Ishiguro’s own history of moving from Japan and growing up in post-war Britain.