Saturday, April 23, 2005

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro is not the kind of man I'd like to be seated next to for dinner. I first encountered his Pale View of the Hills many moons ago. It is a haunting tale set in post-atomic Nagasaki, which happens to be his hometown. (He moved to England at the age of 5). Next there was the truly weird The Unconsoled which can best be described as a child going crazy with a remote control. The action moves unchecked through time, characters appear, disappear and reappear as though lost in a dream. Then there was The Remains of the Day about life "downstairs" at an English country estate, subsequently filmed with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro's new novel. To label it "futuristic" would be a misnomer. It is set in Hailsham, an imaginary establishment in rural England. Languorous descriptions of pastures, trees, cows and vegetation dictate that this is not Arthur C Clarke territory. Nor is this quite Huxleyland. The venue is a cloning farm, where parentless individuals are reared as future donors for organ transplant. The characters have no surnames, because they have no parents in the strict sense. As with all good novels there is a triangle at work. Tommy, Ruth and Kath (the narrator) are residents at Hailsham. Tommy and Ruth are an item. Kath and Tommy have chemistry going. Living as a "donor" embodies certain rules. One of these, requires the characters to give up their creations (art, poetry) to the establishment for display in a "Gallery." I will not give the rest of the plot away.

The novel works at different levels for me. At one, it is the story of memory. Of childhood. Of the tenuousness of recollection. Kath, the narrator, reads The Odyssey and Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, both classics of rendition. Unfortunately, the subjects of memory and recollection encroach upon Kundera territory and I have to confess that MK does a much better job of it. At another level, there is a statement about the value of Art. The characters are imbued with a sense of having to donate their organs to others and face certain death. Their donations to the Gallery represent the giving up of their souls. Or do they ? Does the artist give up just a little bit of himself when he parts with a work of art ? How representative of the artist is the art ? Is it a mere contrivance ? Or something more ? So many questions, so little time.

If one has to use a common adjective to describe all of Ishiguro's novels it has to be the clich├ęd but accurate "haunting". In "Never Let Me Go" what is haunting is the submissiveness with which the characters face their ultimate fate. There is only a hint of revolution when a teacher at Hailsham fails to incite a rebellion and leaves. For the rest, it is Business as Usual. There is not a trace of the horror of one's ultimate fate. At one level, there is a fatalistic nihilism at work. At another, there is a statement of the callousness of the human soul. I was going to add "in the 21st Century" to the last sentence, but then I remembered that there is nothing in the novel to give it a sense of time or history. Incidentally, this is not a novel about the ethics of cloning. Ishiguro sensibly leaves that question unanswered.

The title sequence involves Kath listening to a song with the lines "Baby, baby, never let me go." Her 12 year old mind assumes the song is about a woman with a child which she is reluctant to leave. To an unseen observer, the scene reflects the inability of the child to let go of the world that is destined for her. Haunting.


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