For once I thought I had the metaphor right as I read. The people all have minds that are dysfunctional, they can’t remember anything properly, not short term, not long. They have vague, mushy memories, if any at all – only the present means anything to them. I thought he had created a Facebook world and set it in a primitive sixth century past. It was terribly clever, everybody would set upon some unfortunate individual for a bit and then, suddenly and entirely move on much as they do in the age of social media bullying. Groups ebbing and flowing, as one thing and then another grabs their oh too fleeting attention. It all made sense.
But then I read Ishiguro talking about what he’d written and he said it was about warrior societies and how forgetting is part of how they survive. That made sense too. On an individual level we know that memory must be discretionary. The person who recalls all is one who cannot function. Does the same pertain to the collective unit, community or society? Now I’m thinking, for example, of Germany and Austria after WWII. Australia attempting to come to terms with the idea that the continent belongs to groups of people who have been treated abominably since the start of White Settlement. Truth and Reconciliation in Rwanda. As a historian I’m committed to the belief that remembering is fundamentally important. But is it? Are the potentially devastating consequences of remembering worse, or better than those of forgetting?
Put like this, it seems to me that Ishiguro is asking a question, the significance of which cannot be understated and which is particularly apposite at a moment in time where catastrophe is upon us. As we move into a new world – which might be PK Dick’s The Penultimate Truth, or Atwood’s Orxy and Crake, or Soylent Green, Forster’s The Machine Stops, or Frayn’s A Very Private Life – will it be better to forget the past, the one with trees and water and food that didn’t come out of tubes, where nature was our friend. Where the richest person wasn’t that far apart from the poorest, not compared with the future that we are building up to. Are we really going to want to sit our children’s children on our laps and tell them about those good old days? Are we going to be ready to explain what happened?
Or should we forget? Become used to a life lived inside our tiny houses, conducting everything through the internet, so that by the time the catastrophe is firmly upon us, we will already be addicted to how things are. Will the brave new world we are approaching be one in which memory is a curse?
I find the idea that this is fantasy fiction absurd. For a start, Ishiguro has less than zero interest in any of the conflicts which take place. They fight, somebody wins, it all happens over a sentence or two. I’m not complaining! And for another, it completely fails the xkcd test:
Despite this, the book was nominated for various ‘fantasy’ awards. Perhaps that’s why it was the only novel apart from his first that wasn’t put forward for major awards. (Source for this is wiki, but its reference is to a dead link.)
Apparently Ishiguro struggled with this. His wife read an early draft and said it just wouldn’t do at all. He took that to heart and continued to labour at great length upon it. I’m curious to read the version his wife put in the green bin. It is obvious that a book written about people with no memory is going to suffer from an unavoidable dullness, but I found it strangely compelling nonetheless.
Overall? It’s a book that is trying to deal with a profound and traumatic question. It makes sense to have set it in a distant past as otherwise our own memories and understanding would have corrupted our reading of it. But I wonder if it could have been done better? And I have no idea whether to recommend it or not.