Saturday, June 30, 2018

Back to the Bookers: #23, The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Before this project, the only book I had read by Kazuo Ishiguro was Never Let Me Go. I picked it up not because of the author, but because I love science fiction, and I understood that it was about clones. As a work of science fiction, Never Let Me Go was disappointing; however, it, like The Remains of the Day, is a meditation on being human. It would be nearly impossible for me to discuss these two books at any depth without some ***spoilers***, so consider yourself warned.

From the very start, our narrator and hero, Mr. Stevens, asks himself the question, “What does it mean to be a great butler?” For that is what Mr. Stevens is, a butler in a “distinguished” household. Or rather, he was; Lord Darlington is gone now, and his English manor taken over by an American. Stevens comes to the conclusion that great butlers possess dignity, and cites several anecdotes, some about his butler father, to illustrate his point.

But isn’t the phrase “great butler” an oxymoron? How can a member of a “lower” class be great? Stevens’ eventual answer to this implied question is that those who cannot achieve greatness themselves achieve their purpose by serving the great. And that is the lynchpin that connects this novel with Never Let Me Go. The master/servant relationship here is replaced in the later novel by the more extreme human/clone relationship. Ishiguro explores both “underclasses” with finesse.

Both groups are isolated, marginalized. Both exist to “serve”; the clones, in case you haven’t read NLMG, are being raised to provide “spare” organs for their “originals.” However, both groups are educated. Stevens, for example, presents such a polished fa├žade that a group of villagers mistake him for a gentleman, while the initial setting of NLMG is a school, where the young clones are educated in sport and art, among other subjects. This education is ironic; both groups are treated like circus animals in a way. Certain butlers are called on to demonstrate their knowledge of trivia, while the educators debate whether the clones’ ability to produce art means that they have a soul.

But both groups’ service is tragic. Stevens devotes thirty loyal years to a man who ends up being a Nazi sympathizer. The clones, of course, will die after their final organ sacrifice.

Mr. Stevens may be dignified and loyal, but he is also oblivious, humorless, and overly devoted to his profession -- nearly inhuman. The figure of Miss Kenton, the housekeeper in the same estate as Mr. Stevens, serves as counterpoint to Stevens’ two-dimensionality. Miss Kenton, with her flowers, her passionate support of her staff, her fruitless efforts to connect with Mr. Stevens, is the bleeding heart of the story. She shows us what it means to be human: to love, to be curious, to share banter and warmth. To connect. The clones, of course, have all these traits too; they simply are never allowed the opportunity to share them outside their own “class,” and certainly not with those who will be cannibalizing them. In the end, fortunately, Stevens realizes the true difference between him and his “master”: at least the lord he served had the option to make his own mistakes, while servants (and clones) do not.

Ishiguro demonstrates amply why he earned the Nobel Prize in 2017. The novel is engaging from the very beginning, and delicately crafted throughout. The book tiptoes slowly but inexorably toward the truth about Lord Darlington, and Miss Kenton’s unrequited love. I’ll be reading more from this master writer.

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