Kazuo Ishiguro: The samurai of suburbia

Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of Home Counties horror has triggered both Booker tips and bafflement. He tells Christina Patterson the secrets of his Guildford years
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The Independent Culture

Kazuo Ishiguro's first memories of England are of double-decker buses and squashed hedgehogs. "These were the exotic things," he tells me. "I remember the branches scraping against the roof of the bus and looking down at the puddles and the squashed hedgehogs and feeling that they were all in some way connected. What", he asks suddenly, "happened to the hedgehogs?"

Kazuo Ishiguro's first memories of England are of double-decker buses and squashed hedgehogs. "These were the exotic things," he tells me. "I remember the branches scraping against the roof of the bus and looking down at the puddles and the squashed hedgehogs and feeling that they were all in some way connected. What", he asks suddenly, "happened to the hedgehogs?"

We're both musing on this when his wife, Lorna, pops her head around the door. "So that's what you talk about!" she says. "And I thought it was intellectual stuff!" If she is sick of the sight of journalists invading their immaculate home, she is far too polite to show it. She must, in any case, be used to it. It is 26 years since the down-to-earth Glaswegian met the quiet Japanese boy who wanted to be a rock star. It is 19 years since he won the Whitbread Book of the Year, 16 years since he won the Booker Prize, and twelve since his Booker-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, was made into a film.

The fact is that the publication of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel is a major literary event. In the past couple of weeks the bespectacled face opposite me has been popping up everywhere. The measured voice I'm listening to now has patiently answered the same questions in BBC studios and here, in Golders Green. And the coffee machine has been moved, in honour of visiting journalists, from the garage to the kitchen. The Ishiguros don't drink it, but they want to be polite.

What the other interviews appear to have missed, however, is a matter close to Ishiguro's heart, and to my own. We both grew up in Guildford. Hedgehogs were, to be honest, a little thin on the ground on my Sixties housing estate, but in Ishiguro's patch, a string of Thirties semis, they clearly featured more. What we both remember is the unparalleled latitude of a Surrey County Council primary education. Ish, as he is universally known, went to the school my mother taught at. She taught his younger sister, Yoko. Mrs Ishiguro senior still greets her politely in Guildford High Street. Ishiguro failed his 11-plus, but got to Woking Grammar on interview. "I think they knew we didn't have a hope!" he chuckles.

Guildford was meant to be a temporary interlude in the Ishiguro family chronicle. Ishiguro's oceanographer father came to study the North Sea, but always meant to go back. It was only when Kazuo was 16 that they made the decision to stay. "At some deeper level," he confides, "I think I always assumed we would, because I couldn't quite believe that my parents would pull me out of British life. I thought that my parents wouldn't dare do that to me."

Throughout this time, he was, he says, "building up a kind of Japan" in his head. "I suppose it was preparation for going back in some kind of way, but it was also a kind of nostalgia. In those days there was this feeling that Japan really was another planet.To some extent, that gave me a lot of freedom to make up Japan to my friends. A lot of it", he adds, "was based on speculation and memory."

Speculation and memory were, in fact, the linchpins of the Japan that featured in Ishiguro's early work. His first novel, A Pale View of Hills, written while he was doing the now infamous Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, draws on his own early memories of Nagasaki. He left when he was five, but his memories of the place, and indeed of pretty much everything in his life, remain vivid. It's presumably the reason why memory is the central theme, as well as the mediating mechanism, of his work. Memory, of course, combined with melancholy-inducing speculation about paths not taken or failures of nerve.

It was only during his sole visit to Japan, in 1989, that Ishiguro realised that what he thought of as Japan was in fact "this tiny corner" of Nagasaki. "Geographically and physically," he says, "it was very different to anything else in Japan that I ever saw. The Japanese come to Nagasaki as tourists because it's so exotic and strange. Everyone's very calm. Even the cars are different."

It sounds, I say, suburban. A bit like Guildford. A bit, dare I say it, like Golders Green. Could this be why Ishiguro's narrators are, like the inhabitants of Nagasaki, "very calm"? His books are all about smooth surfaces and the seething chaos beneath. The fruit, perhaps, not just of Japan, but suburbia?

"I guess I've never thought about whether any of the actual physical places that I've lived in influenced that. It's possible," he muses. "You're right, it was a suburb of Nagasaki. It was a nice secluded bit of that neighbourhood, a tranquil house with a typical Japanese garden with a well in it. Ever since I started to write, reviewers made these comparisons with Japanese Zen gardens, a certain kind of tranquillity etc. The idea that that kind of temperament was extended in my English experience is probably quite a valid one.There is", he adds, "certainly a Japanese style that extends to all kinds of things. It has to be very neat and simple on the surface and you cram all the complicated stuff inside. All this hi-fi box" - he gestures towards the huge plasma screen and an impressive array of silver boxes - "you could argue that that's what I'm trying to do in my writing as well, preferably small, with a surface."

Certainly, five out of six of Ishiguro's books conform to this model: the short, wistful and usually unreliable first-person narrative that feels honed to the bone. Only his fourth novel, The Unconsoled, broke the mould and a literary reputation that had seemed unassailable. Set in a nameless European city, it takes the form of an endless car journey to a concert that never takes place. The critic James Wood thought it invented "its own category of badness". Tony Parsons suggested that Ishiguro commit hara-kiri.

His fourth novel, When We Were Orphans, which moves between 1930s London and Old Shanghai, was generally seen as a return to form. Shortlisted for the Booker, it provoked rapturous reviews. And now, with his new novel, Never Let Me Go (Faber, £16.99), it's happening all over again. "A clear frontrunner to be the year's most extraordinary novel," said Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times. "Devastating," said our own reviewer, Andrew Barrow, in a detailed review in these pages last week. Only Tony Parsons and Rosie Boycott, in a peculiarly banal discussion on Newsnight Review, failed to get the point. Parsons's worries appeared to be practical. "I kept thinking, 'Why don't they leg it?'" he mused.

"They" are Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, pupils at Hailsham, a boarding school set deep in the English countryside. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is no ordinary school and that the pupils have bigger worries than Ucas and A-levels. It's only through an exquisitely nuanced, and extremely moving, process of revelation that we realise that the pupils are, in fact, clones, bred for their organs and doomed to an early death. The novel is narrated by Kathy, now a 31-year old "carer", who spends her time travelling from one "recovery centre" to another. Now the time has come for her to become a "donor" herself.

Surprisingly, it didn't start with the cloning, or the organs but, says Ishiguro, as a novel "about this strange group of students". "I've got little pieces of writing upstairs," he says, "which go back to 1990, which are more or less the passages in the centre of the book." It was only after hearing a debate about biotechnology on the radio that he suddenly realised why the students were so strange. Keen to avoid the pitfalls of "futuristic fantasy", he decided to give it a near-contemporary setting, in an England that's strangely faded and flattened. "I didn't want", he explains, "to imply that this was in any way a prophecy or a warning. I wanted the story to have clear metaphorical links with the way we all live as human beings."

In this, he has succeeded. Like his friend Ian McEwan's Saturday (which he says he can't read until he's finished The Idiot), Never Let Me Go is a novel about love and goodness and the hopes and fears of the human heart. "It isn't cheery," says Ishiguro, "but it's no less gloomy than what we always know about our lives. We all know", says the failed rock star, with a rather cheerful smile, "that we're not going to be here for 300 years."

Biography: Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954, but moved with his family to Guildford, Surrey in 1960. His father, an oceonagrapher, had come to Britain to study the North Sea and always planned to go back. Ishiguro read English and philosophy at the University of Kent before doing the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. In between, and after, he worked as a social worker, first in Renfrew, and later in London. He has written five previous novels: A Pale View of Hills (1982), An Artist of the Floating World (1986), which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize and was made into a film, The Unconsoled (1995) and When We Were Orphans (2000). Never Let Me Go (£16.99) is his sixth novel published by Faber. He lives with his wife, Lorna and daughter, Naomi, in Golders Green, north London.