A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills, first published in 1982, Vintage paperback, 1990, 183 pp.

Sometimes I think I’m not a very attentive reader. I didn’t really catch on to the narrative trick of this, Ishiguro’s first published novel, until near the end. Going back for a second reading—all really good fiction deserves, and sometimes demands a second reading—I found all sorts of clues that I missed the first time through. More on the trick later.

I did not discover Ishiguro until recently; the fact that the won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 makes you stand up and take notice, but plenty of nobelist-writers seem somehow undeserving, while the very best writers are often passed over. Not so Ishiguro; he’s deserving.

Etsuko the Unreliable

One obvious fact that could not have been obvious in 1982 but is certainly obvious now: Ishiguro, who writes most of his novels using a first-person narration, loves the unreliable narrator. Such reticent persons are legion in his fiction, most famously the narrator of Remains of the Day. Here is Etsuko Ogata (later Sheringham), the narrator of A Pale View of Hills, with an early admonishment to the reader (beginning of Chapter Three): “It is possible that my memory of these events will have grown hazy with time, that things did not happen in quite the way they come back to me today.” Another citation/understatement on memory, stuck in late in the pages of the book, could well serve as its epigraph: “Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.”

The Japanese parts of the novel are set in Nagasaki, birthplace of Kazuo Ishiguro. He was born in 1954 but left for England with his parents five years later. That’s why he’s a British writer with a Japanese name. As if to accentuate his personal history, he gives one of the minor characters his own name, Kazuo. Returning to his homeland in a work of fiction, he imagines what it must have been like for people living in the years just before his birth: cataclysmic years.

Anyone narrating his or her past uses a lot of confabulation, engages in make believe, but let’s say you live through having an atomic bomb dropped on you, as Etsuko has. Imagine the psychological consequences, the terror, the guilt over surviving when so many of your near and dear did not. In the retelling you are still much concerned with protecting your fragile psyche, so you retell selectively. That, basically, is the main theme of A Pale View of Hills. “You know how it is with children [says Sachiko, a kind of alter ego of Etsuko]. They play at make-believe and they get confused where their fantasies begin and end.” Now living in England in the early 1980s, Etsuko makes believe her way through a retelling of one summer in Nagasaki.

Time Frame and Essential Facts

The exact time frame and exact facts are somewhat nebulous, but here is an approximation. In about 1982 Etsuko’s second daughter Niki, in her early twenties and living in London, comes to visit her mother in the British countryside. Etsuko had left her Japanese husband for a British man, Niki’s father (Sheringham, no first name ever given), and emigrated to England about 1959, bringing with her Keiko, her seven-year-old daughter by her Japanese husband, Jiro Ogata. Niki is portrayed as a modern independent young Western woman, proud of her mother’s courageous decision to abandon her fuddy-duddy Japanese husband and emigrate to a new country. Etsuko herself, however, seems to take no such pride in what she has done.

At this point (present time, early 1980s), Keiko, who apparently never adjusted to her life in England, has been dead, a suicide, for some two-three years. Sheringham is also dead, having predeceased Keiko by some two years. Keiko would have been born about 1952 and Niki about 1960. The Japanese part of the story, in which Etsuko recalls the events of one post-war summer in Nagasaki, is set about 1952—the Korean War is mentioned in passing—shortly before Keiko’s birth.

Other cogent facts: the family has been fragmented by divorce, emigration and remarriage. Keiko—we  learn this late in the narrative—had lived with her Japanese father Jiro for the first seven years of her life, and we presume that she was attached to him. There are hints that she hates her new British father from the start. Although half Japanese by blood, Niki is British by temperament, a new liberated woman. She has nothing in common with her half sister, never gets along with her, does not even come to her funeral. “She was never a part of our lives, not mine or Dad’s.” Keiko, in turn, had not bothered attending her stepfather’s funeral. The book features centrally the mothers and daughters theme, and these characters, the mothers and daughters, do not get along well. Then again, the only fathers and sons featured (Jiro and Ogata-San) do not get along either.

Etsuko and her “Friend” Sachiko, Summer, 1952, Nagasaki

While Niki is visiting her in the British countryside, Etsuko stands looking out a window—more on this “looking out” theme later—and begins thinking about “a woman I knew once in Nagasaki.” This is Sachiko, a rather headstrong mother of a traumatized (by the war) child Mariko. Sachiko has an American boyfriend, Frank, with whom she plans on emigrating to the U.S. As the action proceeds the parallels between Sachiko and Etsuko become apparent. One mother and child pair (Sachiko and Mariko), bound, apparently, for America, and another mother and child pair (Etsuko and Keiko), bound for England. The reader’s problem involves deciding to what extent Sachiko and Mariko really existed, and to what extent they are figments of Etsuko’s imagination, allowing her to retell obliquely episodes from the summer of 1952, when she was pregnant with Keiko—and to revisit painfully traumatic occurrences from her past.

The narrative trick. Certain telling details (easy to miss) suggest that Etsuko is lending Sachiko some of her own experiences and emotions, and by the end of the novel that seems obvious. Early on (p. 13) Etsuko overhears two women in the neighborhood talking about how the arrogant, unfriendly Sachiko has snubbed them, then remarks, “It was never my [Etsuko’s] intention to appear unfriendly.” Much of the interactions between the two women suggest a parallel between good mother and bad mother. Etsuko is not yet a mother but soon will be, and all indications suggest that she will be a good mother. In their very first conversation, Etsuko tells Sachiko that she is worried about her daughter Mariko, whom she has seen fighting with other children. Throughout the episodes set in 1952 Etsuko remains concerned about Mariko, who is emotionally disturbed. The girl has obviously been traumatized by things she has seen during the war, including a crazed woman drowning a baby.

Sachiko, on the other hand, preoccupied with her American boyfriend Frank, seems little concerned with her wayward child, often leaves her alone to go off with Frank. Although she makes it clear to Etsuko that Frank is unreliable, a drunk, she insists on perpetuating her futile dream of going off to America with him, a dream made ever the more impossible by the fact that her daughter Mariko hates Frank, calls him a pig. At one point Sachiko says that Frank is “scared of Mariko.” And well he might be, given the way she behaves. At her last appearance in the book, Sachiko still insists that her dream will come true, still perpetuates her almost insane obsession with “looking forward.” More on the “looking forward” theme later.

Etsuko mentions to another character, “I haven’t found many friends; I’m very glad to have met Sachiko.” Living in England thirty years later, Etsuko, it appears still has no friends. But then again, Sachiko, the bad mother, is not much of a friend. She treats Etsuko with condescension, and seems preoccupied only with herself. When strapped for money she borrows from Etsuko. She also appeals to Etsuko to help her get a job at a noodle shop run by Etsuko’s friend, Mrs. Fujiwara. Later Sachiko quits the job and leaves it to Etsuko to inform Mrs. Fujiwara; she cannot be bothered even to go herself and thank her employer.

Assuming that Sachiko is a figment of Etsuko’s imagination, emblematic of her guilt, the bad mother she sees in her attitudes toward her daughter Keiko, we can also assume that Mariko—who may or may not have actually existed—is a double of Keiko and that the British husband Sheringham is a double of Frank. Of course, we can never be sure of much about Sheringham since Etsuko tells us next to nothing about him. Both he and Frank are rather ghostly presences in the book, never actually appearing in the flesh on its pages. Was Etsuko strongly attached to her British husband, with whom she lived in England for some twenty years? Did she appreciate him as a spouse or lover? If so, she certainly keeps it a secret. The one time she mentions him she speaks of him disparagingly, as a man who wrote erudite articles about Japan but never understood its culture.

The trick. There are lots of hints that Etsuko’s telling of the tale of Sachiko and Mariko is her way of narrating the story of herself and Keiko. In recalling her efforts to reach out to the feral Mariko, Etsuko emphasizes that in those days of her first pregnancy she had “every kind of misgiving about motherhood.” In other words, before Keiko is born there are worries about her, and Mariko is a kind of harbinger of the troubles to come with Keiko. Mariko, if she exists, has gone through the horrendous years of the war and has been left traumatized. Born after the war, Keiko somehow feels its effects through a kind of osmosis, is equally traumatized and never apparently feels safe in her own skin.

There are times when Etsuko’s conversations with Sachiko suggest interior conversations she may have had with herself, when contemplating leaving her husband and her country with a foreigner. Sachiko at one point says, “I’ll be leaving Japan very shortly,” and Etsuko replies, “I’m very pleased, if this is what you wished. But won’t there be . . . various difficulties? . . . . I mean, moving to a different country, with a different language and foreign ways.” At other times it appears that conversations between Etsuko and Mariko may be verbatim transcriptions of conversations between Etsuko and Keiko. After Mariko calls Frank a pig again, Etsuko reacts with anger:

 “‘You’re not to speak like that,’” I said angrily. We stared at each other for a moment . . . . ‘You mustn’t speak like that,’ I said more calmly. ‘He’s very fond of you [he isn’t], and he’ll be just like a new father [he won’t]. Everything will turn out well, I promise.

“The child said nothing. I sighed again.

“‘In any case,’ I went on, ‘if you don’t like it over there we can always come back.’”

Etsuko makes this promise twice to Mariko/Keiko: “If you don’t like it we’ll come straight back.” Later Keiko does not like it, but they do not come back. One detail in regard to this conversation is telling (last page of Chapter Ten). While speaking to Mariko/Keiko here Etsuko is holding a piece of rope that has caught on her sandal. This stray piece of robe shows up twice in the novel. The first time, at the beginning of Chapter Six, where Mariko keeps asking Etsuko, “Why have you got that rope?” This detail may suggest the rope that Keiko later uses to hang herself in England—a rope Etsuko herself feels responsible for.

The War and The Trauma

The Second World War and the horrendous losses of the Japanese color the whole book. Almost everything that happens to the characters of A Pale View of Hills would not probably have happened if not for the war. Then again, in other novels by Ishiguro the war looms large as well. You can see, e.g., the influence of the war (European theatre) in Remains of the Day, and An Artist of the Floating World treats the consequences of the war on the war generation of Japanese.

In A Pale View Ogata-San, Etsuko’s father-in-law, a school teacher and headmaster (now retired), is the mouthpiece for the older generation, those who went along with the ever more virulent Japanese nationalism of the thirties and supported whole-heartedly the war effort. He complains to Etsuko and Jiro that things have changed too much in Japan after the American occupiers have forced democracy on the country. Everyone is selfish now, he asserts; no one has a sense of duty to the country like before.

Ogata-San believes that the honor of the family has been besmirched by Shigeo Matsuda, a young man who was once a friend of his son. Matsuda has published an article in a journal on education in which he accuses Ogata and another teacher of having too easily gone along with the excesses of the thirties, with the nationalistic indoctrination, and even oppression of those who disagreed. Ogata-San’s own son, Jiro, while not openly attacking his father, also seems inclined to Matsuda’s beliefs. Ogata-San must live out his life as an old man, suspecting that Matsuda may be right—that he is responsible for some unconscionable things. The same guilt plagues the protagonist of An Artist of the Floating World.

Looking Forward

There are two big “lookings” going on in this book. The first is “looking forward.” How does it feel to have an atomic bomb dropped on you? That’s an implicit question behind everything going on in Nagasaki at the time this novel is set: some five to seven years after the war. Etsuko and her husband Jiro live east of Nagasaki, in newly-built concrete block apartments adjoining “an expanse of wasteground, several acres of dried mud and ditches.” This desolate wasteland is mentioned over and over throughout the course of the novel and provides a background of malaise for the story of Sachiko and her daughter. There is “an unmistakable air of transience” around the concrete block buildings, “as if all of us were waiting for the day we could move to something better.”

People are still in something of a muddle, and rightly they should be, but there is constant activity around Nagasaki. Everyone is busy rebuilding not only structures, but also lives. At the same time, everyone is putting a lot of energy into trying to forget what has just happened. Like so many other people, a friend of Etsuko, Mrs. Fujiwara, has lost practically her whole family, either in the atomic bomb attack, or in the war, or in a combination of these. She has only one son left, the one to whom Ishiguro gives his own name, Kazuo.

Although we never learn the details from the repressed Etsuko, we know that she lost her fiancé, Nakamura, as well as, apparently, her parents and siblings (if she had any). “You were heartbroken,” says Mrs. Fujiwara, “you were very shocked” [in shock]. Etsuko the orphan is taken in to live with the Ogatas, and eventually she marries into the family. Her attitude toward her past is the same as that of practically all the other Japanese in the book: “let’s forget about these things, let’s look to the future.”

Ishiguro’s novels are heavily populated by reticent people, who suppress their feelings, hold in their emotions, and lie to themselves. Etsuko is particularly good at this self-lying. She apparently is never happy in her life with Jiro, and there are indications that this cold young man never shows any affection for her. But in conversations with Sachiko and Mrs. Fujiwara she insists that she is happy and looking forward to having her first baby. Mrs. Fujiwara says that Etsuko looks miserable, but this comes as a surprise to Etsuko herself. The characters’ insistence on “looking forward” becomes almost obsessive at times. In one conversation between Sachiko and Etsuko (Chapter Seven, p. 111-12) the words are repeated eight (8!) times: “I should keep looking forward,” “how important it is to keep looking forward,” “I’m going to look forward to it,” “you have a lot to look forward to,” “we must look forward to life,” “there’s still so much to look forward to,” etc., etc., etc.

Not only Japanese in Nagasaki in 1952, but also human beings all over the world throughout history cannot do without their looking forward, into a future that may or may not arrive for them. This is really a form of insanity, since the future is a figment of our imaginations; the human race, nonetheless, cannot do without the forward looking. Of course, Ishiguro suggests that there must come a time when there is no more forward to look to. Mrs. Fujiwara herself has almost come to this, although she consoles herself with running a noodle shop and hoping big hopes for her one remaining son. Anyone who lives into old age approaches, at one time or another, the end of the forward looking.

Sachiko, imaginary or not, has little to look forward to at the time of her last appearance in the novel, and Ogata-San is another whose lookings forward have almost run out. Old and alone now, he has moved out of Nagasaki and back to his home town. This move came as a consequence of his son Jiro’s decision to do the modern thing: move himself and his wife into a separate apartment, instead of continuing to live in the old man’s house, as expected. As for Etsuko herself, Sachiko tells her late in the book, “Try and smile, Etsuko. Things will turn out well in the end.” But the fact is that even to the end of this book nothing has ever turned out well for Etsuko, and nothing probably ever will. At the time of the present in the action of the novel, in England, Etsuko is left only with her daughter Niki. They are not close, do not get along well, and Etsuko cannot “look forward” to a grandchild, since the ultra-modern Western young woman Niki is the epitome of what Ogata-San would call the selfish and individualistic woman that the Americans have foisted on Japan; she hates children and wants none of her own.

Looking Out

The other big “looking” in the novel is “looking out” of windows. Never have I read a book in which the characters—especially Etsuko, but also others—are described so frequently as standing or sitting idly by windows, staring out at nature. This theme of “looking out” provides even the title of the book. “I could see far beyond the trees on the opposite bank of the river, a pale outline of hills visible against the clouds.” What Etsuko sees here, we later learn, are the hills of Inasa, “the hilly area of Nagasaki overlooking the harbour, renowned for its mountain scenery.” Here is where she went with Sachiko and Mariko on an outing that left her with “one of the better memories I have of those times.”

To what extent she went with (the possibly imaginary) Sachiko and Mariko on that outing we do not know. But one detail later suggests that Keiko had been with her, and she apparently cherishes this memory of one happy day in her and Keiko’s lives. An American woman shows up in a peripheral way in that outing, and what exactly she is doing in the story I do not know. But I like the way she is described: talking and laughing loudly. Ishiguro is especially good at describing how people laugh, in particular how they laugh when uneasy or embarrassed.

This is a novel, in part, on the theme of ennui. Etsuko, apparently, has spent most of her life bored and idle, looking out windows. She is a lifelong housewife, who has never held a job. First in Japan, then later, in England, she looked, and is still looking, out windows. She once played the violin, but by early in her first marriage she had given it up. Her friend Sachiko, who speaks English well, mentions that her Japanese husband had made her give up studying English, had thrown away all her English language books. Etsuko, in her telling, never spoke English at all in her Japanese life, but this is probably another example of where Sachiko’s details come from Etsuko; it was probably Etsuko’s bilious husband Jiro who threw away her English books—and later had the tables turned on him when she began an affair with an Englishman and left him. This, along with the war years, has provided the only drama in Etsuko’s life, but the drama is what she wants to forget: the war, the affair, the decamping for England.

Ghosts

In reviewing this book early on, one critic called it a ghost story, whether Ishiguro was aware of that or not. The principal ghost, it appears, is the dead Keiko. Her ghostly presence drifts through the whole novel, especially in the passages describing Niki’s visit to the family home in England, and the eerie presence of Keiko’s old room in that home. Keiko’s death “was never far away, hovering over us whenever we talked.” The image of hanged girls festers in Etsuko’s mind. She mentions postwar murders of children in Nagasaki, including that of a little girl, who had been found hanging. Keiko hanged herself in Manchester, and her landlady did not discover the hanging body for several days. This horrifying image is foremost in Etsuko’s imagination, and she has learned to make her peace with it, since, perversely enough, it is the last image that she has of Keiko. “It is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.” Hanged girls, drowned babies, drowned cats. Maybe that statement is the key to Etsuko’s personality.

In this, his first novel, Ishiguro perhaps felt the need to exorcise some personal ghosts from his past. If not, why name one of the characters Kazuo? Certainly one theme must be dear to his heart: that of emigration. To what extent is he, pure Japanese by blood, still Japanese? He has grown up in England from age five, now writes his books in English, is a British writer. Speaks Japanese still with his parents, yes, but in one interview he has described his use of the language as a pidgin Japanese. But, like so many people who change countries, does he—or at least did he once—experience the “neither fish nor fowl” sensation of the emigrant? The being nowhere in particular, but somewhere in between. Liminality, the curse of the man with no country.

The most prominent ghost of all in this story is the woman who once was Etsuko. What was this woman, and before her the girl Etsuko, really like? Since she as narrator of the novel resists telling us, and mightily resists looking back on the realities of her own past, we have to do a lot of guessing. Quite possibly, some of the episodes describing the girl Mariko really relate to the girl or young woman Etsuko. Take Sachiko’s description of how a woman during the war drowned her own baby, and how Mariko witnessed the drowning. Could this horrible scene be something that Etsuko came upon during the war or after the bomb was dropped?

While Niki is visiting her in England, Etsuko has a recurrent dream about a little girl. This, of course, suggests her recollections of Mariko in Japan, or of Keiko, but then again, could she be dreaming of her own lost little self? After all, the little girl whom she has so thoroughly repressed must be crying out for release. Quite likely her tale of the imaginary Sachiko and Mariko is her way of venting all the horrors of her life—things that may have happened to her as a little girl, and then, especially, what she went through and witnessed during the war, but also the horrors of her bad marriage with Jiro, the turmoil involved with having an affair, leaving Jiro for a foreigner. And, especially again, her guilt over taking Keiko to England and leaving her there, after having promised her, “If we don’t like it we’ll come back.” Here, late in the book, is her admission of guilt: “I knew all along she wouldn’t be happy over here. But I decided to bring her just the same.”

Sachiko, it appears, is set up as bad mother as a foil to Etsuko’s imminent good mother. The pregnant Etsuko as described in her Japanese life seems destined to avoid some of the bad mothering described on the part of Sachiko. What was the young married Etsuko really like, though? Probably a mixture of Etsuko and Sachiko. One cannot imagine the demure Etsuko, good wife and subservient housewife, having an affair, leaving her husband, getting up the gumption to take her daughter with her and flee her home country. Only a Sachiko-type character is capable of such action, but Etsuko takes such action. We can only conclude that she was much less subdued and subservient than she describes herself in her Japanese life.

The climax of the whole novel is the scene describing how Sachiko takes Mariko’s kittens out and drowns them, while her daughter watches. Still hellbent on leaving Japan for America with the woebegone Frank, Sachiko has the choice of remaining in Japan, returning to live with her uncle. But that choice, amenable to Mariko, is unacceptable to her. Sachiko’s/Etsuko’s total break with her Japanese past is embodied by the scene with the drowning kittens. One finds it hard to believe that even bad mother Sachiko, much less Etsuko, could have been capable of such cruelty. Once again, we can only guess where the imagery of this scene comes from. Did Etsuko herself once witness something similar? We don’t know. Most likely, the scene sums up for her in her own mind all the hideous reality of what she did to her own daughter thirty years ago. She still lives with drowning cats and girls hanging from ropes in her mind, and she takes even some perverse satisfaction in restaging hideous scenes and reveling in the cruelty; like a person with a terrible toothache, whose tongue returns obsessively to poke at the pain.

U.R. Bowie, author of Here We Be. Where Be We? In the Shitstorm Year of 2020

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