Posts Tagged ‘England’

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro – review

August 22, 2012

I’ve tried something a bit different with this one. The bulk of this review is really an informal journal I kept while reading the story, which means there are gobs of spoilers. It also means that the first half of this thing is very plot heavy.  I hope it gives a fair rundown of what happens, maybe makes the story easier for others to run down. I do think it lacks a bit with breaking down different aspects of the work, and things that felt important while I was reading felt less important when I finished. I think there is a lot here about how gender, reconstruction and class issues all came together and got thrown into the blender by WWII.  For some reason, what kept coming to mind was A.S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories.  I think there might be something between the two about women, society and how they find their place within it that could be pulled together into a larger paper. The link is to my review of Byatt’s collection, btw. And, as always, here’s a link to buy Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills.


Etsuko is being visited by her daughter Niki. Another daughter, Keiko, has recently killed herself – hanging, not found for a few days. Now lives in England, used to live in Japan. Daughters from different fathers – Keiko “pure” Japanese, Niki part British.

In past, when Etsuko was pregnant with her first child, lived near Nagasaki with her husband after the war. In a small hut/cabin near the river, a woman and child moves into the community; Sachiko (mother) and Mariko (daughter).  Mariko often claims to see a woman who comes to the cabin at night while her mother is away, asking if she wants to come see her house. Never goes? One day she is gone and is found by the river with a cut on her leg – they don’t really say how big/dangerous the cut is. This happens after she starts working at noodle shop. I’m guessing Mariko couldn’t stay at the shop because she was rude to the customers.

We learn that Sachiko spent some time with her uncle, but left. Why? doesn’t say. Now seems to be on her own and enlists Etsuko’s help in getting a job at a local noodle shop. we find out Sachiko has a weakness for tea and has stolen an expensive tea set from her uncle when she left.

Etsuko’s husband is Jiro, works a lot. His father is Ogata. Visits, plays chess with Jiro. Is unhappy with one of Jiro’s former classmates, Shigeo Matsuda, for an article about teachers and how it’s a good thing a few have left, naming Ogata. Ogata wants Jiro to write a strongly worded letter to Shigeo seeking apology for the affront. Jiro avoids it.

Later we see a deepening split between Jiro and his father over the chess game and Jiro’s unwillingness to confront Shigeo Matsuda. This isn’t as straight forward as I’ve described it so far because I think there is a definite thing going on commenting on generational shift, and Ogata is not nearly the purely likeable old man he makes himself out to be. He is horrified that the wife of one of Jiro’s friends may vote differently from him in an upcoming election because the least a wife should do is adopt her husband’s view, and defend them to the death (which I assume would be hers). He also doesn’t hold back in scolding Jiro for never growing up, and reacting the same way towards losing a game of chess as he did when he was a child. He accuses Jiro of never planning ahead, and then not adjusting to any difficulties placed before him. I’m having a hard time grasping the time line exactly, but it has got to be set at some point between 1945 and 1952, because it seems the American occupation is happening, but quickly winding down. Also, it seems Nagasaki has recovered a bit from the bombings, as Etsuko and Sachiko talk a bit about how it doesn’t look as devastated as it did after the bombing, and that surrounding areas have been rebuilt.  Because of this, I’m not entirely sure what to make of Jiro’s age and what exactly the cultural criticism is that is being lobbed here.  The way I take it is that Ogata’s generation is the one that was in charge of the war, while Jiro’s was the one that actually fought.  If so, Ogata’s criticism seems misplaced, as it was his generation that couldn’t pivot and reform a plan after the US countered. Meanwhile, the inability of Ogata’s generation to provide their own counter plan, likely killed many of Jiro’s generation, or at the least saddled them with the transition period they were going through after the war.

Meanwhile, Jiro’s generation appears to be doing exactly what Ogata claims they are not. They are faced with a radically reshaped nation, and are working to move that nation forward – having to plan several steps ahead.  Considering Jiro’s barely contained aggression towards this, I wonder if he doesn’t see it, too. However, he hesitates, and doesn’t take action and Etsuko says that this inability to move, that Jiro’s avoiding the chess game and potentially his inability to chuck the chessboard across the room, is what would later lead her to leave him when he reacted with a similar hesitation.

This reading, of course, changes greatly if you assume Ogata has a legitimate right to challenge Jiro about the war. If the younger generation was responsible for blowing it, Ogata’s criticisms become much more pointed. Also, it dovetails better with Etsuko’s reaction to them, and her agreeing with Ogata about her husband’s actions.

Ogata ends up confront Shigeo himself. Ogata is genuinely befuddled why Shigeo would write such a thing, while Shigeo keeps referring to people like Ogata, “good people,” teaching the Japanese things that were wholly untrue and how the nation needs to move on. He repeatedly references a “new dawn” for Japan. The impression is given that with this new dawn, it will also be the Americanization of Japan. Meanwhile, Ogata argues for the importance of the past and how Japan didn’t need to change wholesale to match its conquerors.

Afterwards, Ogata and Etsuko go to Mrs. Fujiwara’s noodle shop. Ogata again shows his old-fashioned qualities, repeatedly remarking to Etsuko how horrible it is that Mrs. Fujiwara has to work like that when she “used to be” so respected, and while Mrs. Fujiwara appears to enjoy running her noodle shop.

The rest of the book goes by in somewhat of a blur. Etsuko, Sachiko and Mariko go out for a day, and Sachiko ends up spending a lot of time talking to an American woman they run into. Sachiko speaks English very well,  and again uses the opportunity to remark to Etsuko that she wasn’t always poor.  We also learn that Sachiko is abandoned by Frank, momentarily dashing the hope of moving to America. This is only reversed later when we learn that Sachiko has tracked Frank down, and that they have decided to put Sachiko and Mariko up in Kobe while Frank goes back to America to establish himself and then send for them. This leads to a disturbing scene where Sachiko finally snaps after Mariko asks one too many times about taking a group of kittens with them. Sachiko bundles the kittens into a box and walks to a river. First she tries to drown one, but it fights her and almost literally refuses to drown. Etsuko bears a grim witness to the events as Sachiko then simply shuts all of the kittens in their wooden box and dumps the whole box in the river where it slowly sinks out of sight. They realize Mariko has also watched this happen, and Mariko then takes off, disappearing in the night.

Before anyone sets off in search of Mariko, Etsuko and Sachiko go back to Sachiko’s cabin to finish packing. Under gentle prodding, Sachiko admits that it’s unlikely they ever see America, but what else can they do? This flies in the face of the fact that Mariko’s uncle, Sachiko’s brother-in-law, more than welcomes them back to his house. We learn that Sachiko worries of growing old and alone, much the way her cousin has at the Uncle’s house.  While Mariko loved the place, it had to be a frightening omen for Sachiko of what the future would bring if she stayed in such a place.

The novel ends back in England, with the older Etsuko and her grown daughter Niki still feeling each other out around the edges in the wake of the death of Etsuko’s other daughter, Keiko. etsuko tries to reach out to Niki a few times, gently probing about Niki’s boyfriend,  but her inquisitiveness is shut down immediately. Meanwhile, Niki keeps professing her pride in her mother’s taking control of her life and doing what was right for her, but it all comes off as mildly patronizing. the novel ends with the image of Niki walking out the gate to head to the train station, turning and being a bit surprised to see her mother still standing there, waving goodbye.
Sachiko’s life and decisions can be seen to easily mirror those that we know Etsuko makes later in her own life – though Etsuko’s appears to be more by choice. I wonder if  there is something being said here about how a generation of Japanese may have been sort of lost in the middle. The older generation could still live comfortable ensconced in their memories, shielding them from the changes taking place around them. Meanwhile, the younger generations could adapt more easily and take ownership of the changes. However, there is a middle generation that may have been caught in the gap. They didn’t have the past to wrap around themselves, but they were still too formed by the Japan prior to the war to truly make the new Japan “theirs.”

Mrs. Fujiwara would be an exception to this. She’s older, her old station in life has been thrown to the wind, but she adapted, started a noodle shop and seemed to be prospering. At the same time, though, Ogata essentially shunned her. While each clearly felt something for each other, all Ogata could talk about was how it was  such a shame that she had to run a noodle shop. I have to think, or at least wonder, if Ogata’s reaction to Mrs. Fujiwara would be emblematic of how others of their generation would regard her, which would lead to her ostracism despite the success and popularity of her establishment.

All in all, I think there is a fairly strong current of feminism running through the book, but it isn’t a feminism in the sense of articulating ideas of equality and opportunity, but more one of action -both chosen and forced. This is also where we see the strongest schisms between generations. Mrs. Fujiwara is broken from her generation by her taking control of her own business and forging a life for herself. Meanwhile, Sachiko is a bit of an outcast from society in general, in part due to the choices she is confronted with after losing her original station in life. Etsuko bridges a bit of the gap between these two. She embraces the old ways of Japan in one sense, and is at least part of the reason Ogata takes to her so well. on the other, we know that she eventually leaves Jiro and moves to England where she essentially starts her life over. Niki, meanwhile, reaps the benefits but seems to be far less anchored in life than Etsuko ever appears to be.  So while Niki has the benefits of the choices available to her, she more resembles Sachiko in not being entirely sure in what direction to take – or that might be because we are given the world at least slightly through Etsuko’s lens.


Character List

Etsuko – primary character. Older in England, widow, one daughter (Keiko) recently committed suicide, one daughter (Niki) is visiting.
In Japan, younger, pregnant (with Keiko, we assume), married to Jiro, befriends Sachiko & Mariko.

Niki – half-english, half-Japanese daughter of Etsuko and her British husband.

Keikio – Japanese daughter, prone to fits of seclusion, commits suicide after moving away from home.

Jiro – Etsuko’s first husband, Japanese, lawyer. Very passive-aggessive.

Ogata – Jiro’s father, old fashioned, cares about Etsuko deeply. not overly thrilled with his son. former teacher.

Sachiko – single mother, life destroyed  by the war, works at noodle shop but always talks about how she looks forward to getting away from it and how her life used to be “very different.” Clearly not happy with where she’s at, sees motherhood as a burden and how Etsuko will understand when she’s finally a mother. Annoying person.

Mariko – Sachiko’s daughter. neglected, really. Seems lonely, doesn’t interact with people very well. Strong willed, opinionated.

Shigeo Matsuda – former classmate of Jiro’s, now a teacher who has recently published an article that mentions Ogata and that the old ways of teaching need to be left behind for the sake of Japan’s future.

Mrs. Fujiwara – widow, used to be a woman of high social standing, now owns/operates a noodle shop.