Master of detached passions

Once his well-mannered nihilism won him the Booker Prize then the critics turned against him. This Tuesday he gets a second chance.
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Writers' experience of work in the non-creative world can be rather limited. Dickens was a reporter of debates in the Commons. Trollope was a junior GPO clerk. Kenneth Grahame worked for the Bank of England.

Writers' experience of work in the non-creative world can be rather limited. Dickens was a reporter of debates in the Commons. Trollope was a junior GPO clerk. Kenneth Grahame worked for the Bank of England.

Check out Kazuo Ishiguro's CV, on the other hand, and you find a gallery of curious jobs. For a time he worked as a grouse beater on the Queen Mother's estate in the Scottish Highlands; later he was a social worker on a Strathclyde housing estate and worked for the homeless in west London. He got a degree in English and philosophy, but began writing songs and dreamed of becoming a rock star. Hanging out with royalty, serving soup to the dispossessed, reading Plato, playing riffs - here, you think, is a man trying on jobs like clothing, seeing what fits, moving between extremes of class and behaviour and expression, looking for a home.

Work is a crucial determinant in his novels. What his characters do for a living seems to define who they are, but constantly disappoints. Stevens, the butler in The Remains Of The Day, realises that he has spent his life in service to a fascist master. Ono, the idealistic painter in An Artist Of The Floating World, prostitutes his art for military propaganda. Ryder, the celebrity musician of The Unconsoled, finds himself collapsing under the burden of other people's expectations. In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro's new novel, an English detective called Banks tries to apply the principles of sleuthing to the post-war hell of Shanghai, and discovers how hopelessly inadequate they are.

Coming to despise what you do, and what your life has made you - that's the tragic core of Ishiguro's characters, as their lives unpeel to nothingness, as they unpick the past and find the most solid memories suddenly resoundingly hollow. It's a nihilistic vision, but one couched in the most well-mannered syntax, a restrained narrative tone, the least flashy writing around. And, on Tuesday, this combination of formal millpond and emotional torrent should see the 46-year-old novelist pip Margaret Atwood to win the Booker Prize for the second time.

Ladbroke's has Atwood as 11/8 favourite, with Ishiguro lying second at 4/1. But Atwood's The Assassin's Bride isn't a patch on Alias Grace, her last novel, whereas When We Were Orphans is a phenomenal piece of work, as surreal as Kafka, as gripping as Chandler, as English as treason, but overlaid with a post-modern glitter that comes straight from Ishiguro's unique identity crisis.

His relationship with his birthplace is ambivalent. He has always played down suggestions of Japanese influences in his work. The formality of his writing, he told an audience at the Hay Festival this year, derives more from his Guildford upbringing than any Nipponese protocol. He left Japan at five to come to England, where his father, an oceanographer, was employed by the British government to do research in the North Sea. He has been back only once, on an author tour in 1989. But the place he grew up in was Nagasaki, and the destruction of half the city (and 39,000 people) by an atomic bomb on 9 August 1945 has clearly cast a long shadow over his imagination. For years he assumed every city must have its craters and terrible memories, its neighbourly murmurs of "That was before the bomb, of course ..."

At school in Guildford, he and his friends played war games, in which the baddies were sometimes the Japs. At home, in a semi-detached house in Grange Close, life was utterly suburban, but with a samurai scabbard over the family hearth. His parents rented their house from travelling English friends, and, when the friends came home, they bought the house next door - so the new house was a mirror image of the house where he grew up.

Most telling is the fact that Ishiguro's parents always assumed they would return to Japan sooner or later. He and his sister, Fumiko, were raised in the expectation of living in Nagasaki one day. And the young writer tried to preserve an instinct about how to behave in Japanese society. So he has never, he says, quite let go of the place, or said a fond farewell. "It was just that time, life, the world came along and rearranged things when I wasn't looking. The next time I looked, Japan was gone."

Psychologists could have a field day with these details. They seem to explain his skewed narratives, the deceptive domestic blandness of Remains Of The Day, the pain of feeling you're on the wrong side in a war, that you're backing the wrong horse, that you're in the wrong house. He is the master of surreal anxiety and eloquent displacement. But when he says that Japan was suddenly gone from him, he is, of course, wrong. Of course it isn't. His past, and the country of his birth, simply went underground.

After the University of Kent, he got an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, Malcolm Bradbury's king-making production line that started the careers of Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain and Ishiguro's Booker rival this year, Trezza Azzopardi. While at UEA, he began A Pale View Of Hills, in which a Japanese mother looks back over her life in postwar Nagasaki after the suicide of her eldest daughter. It was praised by Angela Carter, and won him a place, in 1983, on the line-up of Best Young British Novelists.

An Artist Of The Floating World followed in 1986, establishing the Ishiguro tone - smooth, diplomatic, periphrastic, slightly vague, occasionally pompous - that irritates some critics but makes him the most translatable of writers. "Kuroda, it seemed, had not fared at all badly since his release at the end of the war. Such are the ways of this world that his years in prison gave him strong credentials, and certain groups had made a point of welcoming him and seeing to his needs. He had thus experienced little difficulty finding work."

It's the voice of a well-brought-up Tokyo civil servant. It's also, by some feat of legerdemain, the voice of mandarin English prose at the end of the 19th century. It became the voice of the Eternal Butler in Remains Of The Day, which won the Booker Prize in 1989, sold more than a million copies, was filmed by Merchant/Ivory and is still the only modern novel known to have been read by the Queen. So successfully did Ishiguro impersonate a tone of utterly British deference and imperturbable ignorance, as Stevens fatuously shimmers through the drawing rooms of Darlington Hall during the appeasement crisis, few noticed that some of the relationships were distinctly Japanese.

Ishiguro endured a protracted promotional tour ("I have never wanted to be a famous writer," he has said plaintively), moved house from middle-class Sydenham in south London to multi-cultural Golders Green on the north side, married his long-term girlfriend, Lorna, a fiery Glaswegian, and brought up a daughter, Naomi, now eight. He disappeared from the London party circuit for years, presumably becoming the perfect family man and writing his masterpiece. But when the next book appeared, after a gap of six years, there were howls of execration.

The Unconsoled was a 600-page slab of sub-Kafka dreamscape, a looping nightmare of issueless encounters and endless monologues. It seemed to abandon his earlier audience-stroking politeness, and thrust a lot of unresolved need in the reader's face. All the critics hated it, except for John Carey and Anita Brookner. They pronounced it a masterpiece.

And if When We Were Orphans wins him his second Booker, the people who trashed The Unconsoled will have to reconsider its importance in the Ishiguro canon. For it's clear that these works represent his mature style. In its odd time-slips between Shanghai in the 1910s and 1930s and London in the days when society ladies were impressed by "fashionable" private eyes, in its bursts of cinematic surrealism (the family servant suspected of changing children's hands into spiders) and bravura descriptions of shattered streets, Orphans pulls together all the preoccupations of his career. His protagonist, Banks, goes to Shanghai to find his parents, just as the author, in his own head, can find his childhood by thinking of the Nagasaki he left at five.

"In my head, all these people are still alive," he has said. "Against all rational knowledge, somewhere I believe that everything is running smoothly there, much the same way as it always did. The world of my childhood is still intact." And still bearing him back, like Jay Gatsby, ceaselessly into the past.