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Fiction Without Frontiers

November 05, 1995|CHARLOTTE INNES

Where is Ishiguroland? Somewhere between an English schoolyard and a nightmarish Nowheresville. Or so we are led to believe by Japanese-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation with novelist and travel writer Pico Iyer at the opening event of the Lannan Foundation's 1995-96 readings & conversations series. When Iyer asks about "Ishiguroland," Ishiguro quite rightly calls the question "innocent-sounding but alarming and deep." For it concerns not only the structure and setting of his stories, but also the workings of that inner place where fiction first takes shadowy form. For a person with tenuous roots, this can be complicated.

Anyone who's read Ishiguro's books will know that to enter Ishiguroland is to feel trapped inside an obsessive's head. His first three novels were praised, not only for their smooth narratives, but also for the particular atmosphere of their settings, postwar Japan in the first two ("A Pale View of Hills" and "An Artist of the Floating World") and aristocratic England in the widely popular "The Remains of the Day" (which was translated into 24 languages and made into a Merchant-Ivory film).

When you think about this, it seems peculiar: Ishiguro learned English as a 5-year-old immigrant "parroting" his British playmates, he says, and his family always on the verge of going back to Japan. His knowledge of both countries is going to be limited--at best, singular. Indeed, his portrait of Stevens the butler in "Remains" was entirely made up. He was generously praised, he says, but for all the wrong reasons.

Hence "The Unconsoled." In his latest novel, Ishiguroland has undergone a radical make-over. Written in the form of a nightmare from which no one wakes up, the book features a world-renowned classical pianist, Mr. Ryder, visiting a city on an international tour much like Ishiguro's present multi-city trip. Mr. Ryder, though, is expected to play not only music but Messiah for citizens in search of life's lost meaning.

It's a metaphor for political crisis and personal disconnection. But where? The unnamed city seems vaguely European but nowhere you can put your finger on. And that, Ishiguro tells the Lannan audience, was deliberate. He didn't want people to think the book was an allegory, or to be told that he was now an expert on Bosnia.

Half-seriously, half-playfully, Iyer and Ishiguro dance around the idea of "international" fiction as a new, contextless kind of writing, by writers on the run from ethnic stereotyping--or perhaps just in thrall to never-ending book tours.

Ishiguro says he goes out of his way to avoid cultural references. The result: No colloquialisms, word games or esoteric customs. The danger: "You might become very bland . . . the fictional equivalent of Time magazine"--no disrespect intended, he says to Iyer, a Time essayist. The benefit: "I ask what matters, what themes are important."

But isn't that what all great literature ponders? One of the joys of reading across cultures is to distill the universal lesson from a particular setting--to see old emotions described in new ways. Besides, we are all creatures of one environment or another. Even though more writers are traveling, I suspect there will be no such thing as the bare-bones "international" fiction these guys are sketching.

With boyish charm and British urbanity, Ishiguro concedes that Ishiguroland has one constant: its population "of buttoned-up people with repressed emotions." Some emotional control is "cool," Ishiguro says. "But at which point does it actually become destructive to other people? At which point does it erase something human about you? When does it cease to be dignity and become stupidity and self-delusion?"

Now that's Ishiguroland.

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