An artist of alternative worlds
The secret's out - Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel is about cloning. But that is just its starting point, he tells Shane Hegarty.
Kazuo Ishiguro will give around 300 interviews about his new novel Never Let Me Go, but he's not sure he knows how to talk about it. "There are some books where the temptation is to say, well I just want to put it out there and see how people react," he admits. "Increasingly, I would like to offer books with very little packaging around it. I would like readers to read it fresh. But it's getting less and less possible to do that. And I guess that's sort of the pact we've all entered to publicise the book."
This novel has particular difficulties. There are what he calls "technical problems" of describing its premise and how much of it he should give away, but also because Never Let Me Go is both recognisable and strange for an Ishiguro novel. A 31-year-old woman looks back at life in a mysterious boarding school where children with no parents or surnames are groomed as "carers" and "donors". It is familiar to his previous novels, most famously and successfully The Remains of the Day, in how it unfolds subjectively through the memory of a precisely formed character.
Except that this is a book about clones. His publishers kept the plot secret for as long as they could, but Ishiguro isn't so bothered by that. "The problem with saying there's a big mystery to this book is that people start reading it and they think it's the point of the book and will focus on the wrong thing."
It is set in an alternative England, in which genetic engineering rather than nuclear technology provided the post-war scientific breakthrough. "I'm not worried about labels, such as science fiction or whatever. Yes, there is an element of it, but if it's read like a dystopian parable, as a warning of where society's going with biotechnology, it's not a very convincing book. There are any number of carefully argued non-fiction books that will go into that issue in a much better way. So, I want to encourage readers to see it as a taking-off point."
Whatever about the book's futuristic premise, Ishiguro remains pre-occupied with sifting through the past for keys to the present. It is concerned more with humanity than gadgetry. "I don't want to sound very grand about this, but it is supposed to be a metaphor for our universal condition, that we all have a limited life-span." He gives a little half-laugh as he says this, as if deflecting the cliché in that notion. "I was trying not to put anything in it that was not adaptable to what I think is universal condition, because it's very tempting to put all sorts of things into it that go with the clone world."
Bred as organ donors, these characters are constantly aware of death, hope to put it off, and obsess about seemingly trivial aspects of their relationships. Some would have preferred a more pragmatic twist. Tony Parsons, discussing the book on The Late Review, couldn't understand why the characters "don't just leg it".
As it happens, Ishiguro kind of knows what he was getting at. "Of course, he was trying to disparage the book, but on some deeper level this is a key philosophical question," he laughs. "Why don't human beings leg it? And, of course, the answer to that is that it's very difficult to escape the limitations of who we are as organic beings. I guess people do try and leg it in other senses. We might look to religion, or we try to build, say, this idea that if you find love in life then the effect of knowing our fate is lessened, or a lot of the sting of that will be removed. Perhaps art too - we think perhaps in some sense it can defeat death.
"I think I'm quite a metaphorical writer. I don't mean that I want people to intellectually go through my book looking for symbols. I hate that kind of writing. But with all my books I've realised that to some extent I've wanted people to read the story and at some level at least sense that this is a metaphor for universal things. And I guess that if I can offer anything as a novelist it's these little images that can be an emotional shorthand for us, about the way we are or the way we live. I can't offer anything very deep or intellectual or any solutions, but I can offer an image so that sometimes I can say: 'that this is the way life is sometimes like', and provoke a certain emotion."
It keeps literature professors busy, hunting for sub-text in his work. He sometimes wishes they wouldn't. Not because of what they find, but what they think they have found. He's especially impatient with those fixated on multi-cultural and post-colonial themes. Born in Japan, Ishiguro's family moved from Nagasaki to London in 1960, when he was six. The fact that he has reflected this overtly, and his novels' semi-historical backdrops, offer good academic hunting ground.
"I'm sent essays where some tiny aspect of my book has been taken and distorted and it's made almost the entire theme, just so it can fit into a pattern of various other writers' works that I suspect it's also being done to. And that's the only time when I think something slightly destructive is going on here. I feel 'it's your work versus mine'."
He is a youthful-looking 50. Writing has obviously been kind to him, yet when he started he says the idea that it would ever actually be a career was faintly "dotty". Great novelists relied on second jobs, wrote books that too often went out of print before the reviews were warming somebody's chips.
He arrived at the right time, he suggests, just as literary fiction was making its way into the mass market. Now it is a "terrific time" for British literature, spurred on by well-stocked bookshops, energetic publishers, enthusiastic press and, of course, decent writers. He mentions Zadie Smith, David Mitchell and Alex Garland. "A lot of younger writers don't seem to worry about the distinctions between what is popular and what is literary. There's something about their attitude to culture, it doesn't seem to suffer from that distinction in the way my generation did."
Making the Booker prize short-list with his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro says that he could only develop as a writer by winning it with his next, The Remains of the Day, in 1989. His follow-up, The Unconsoled - a long novel about an amnesiac pianist travelling to a concert - was eviscerated by many critics, before When We Were Orphans brought him back into favour and back on the Booker short-list.
"When I published my second novel and it was short-listed for the Booker, I felt a lot of pressure then. I was in my late 20s, early 30s and that was another point when people where saying, this is an interesting age in British fiction. And there was a generation of us all expected to win the Booker prize. In fact, people were so focused on the Booker it was very narrow. And I was incredibly relieved I won it with my next book. Otherwise, I'm sure I would have written different books if I had continued to apply for this prize and kept getting turned down."
Looking back on these novels, he sees a pattern. "I think I didn't recognise at the time the extent to which I was trying to preserve a kind of remembered Japan. I thought I was dealing with themes of exile or parental responsibility, people who have given themselves to a vocation, have misled themselves. Those things were there too, but I think it was only years later it occurred to me that a large part of the drive was an act of preservation. And although that can be seen obviously in my first two books, because they're set in Japan, maybe in some sense that's true of my subsequent novels as well," he says.
"There's some sort of sensibility, some sort of world that I feel unless I get it down on paper it's not going to exist anywhere else. This project of kind of creating alternative worlds is, I'm beginning to think, key to why I write. I'm not trying to describe necessarily the surface details of the world we live in, I'm trying to create these alternative worlds which to some extent will mirror the deeper anxieties and universal worries that we have."
The theme of memory has been central to Ishiguro's novels, and he will return to it, perhaps a wider view of collective memory and whether there are parallels between how individuals and society might remember or forget. "You can start to form the beginnings of a novel and you really want to be able to do it, but it's like that delicate early stage where you're not sure if you'll be able to do it or not."
What are his ambitions? "You know, there's still a part of me that thinks I have to write a really good novel. I'm not trying to say I'm not happy with the novels I've written in the past. But it always feels to me like there's another one that I have to write that will really say what I want to say, and really paint this world that I can see hazily in my head."
Never Let Me Go is published by Faber and Faber, £16.99