Kazuo Ishiguro: Social worker turned Nobel Prize winner

AFP-JIJI

Kazuo Ishiguro, the 62-year-old British novelist of Japanese origin who won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday, once wanted to be a rock star, then became a social worker and only later in life turned to writing.

Born in Nagasaki and raised in England while speaking Japanese at home, his writing has consistently explored this duality — something that he credits with aiding his appeal.

“I’ve always looked at the world partly through my parents’ eyes … (and) had a part of me that was Japanese,” he said on Thursday in the garden of the north London home he shares with his wife.

“That was quite good for me as a writer at the time when I was writing, because literature started to become very international.”

Ishiguro told the BBC he was “flabbergastingly flattered” by the award and had been writing an email at his desk when he received the “totally unexpected” news.

“I thought it was a hoax in this time of fake news — I didn’t believe it for a long time,” he told journalists on Thursday.

He called last year’s laureate, Bob Dylan, “my hero” and said he would accept the award in Stockholm — unlike Dylan. “I said of course, I’m willing to cancel a few things for that,” he joked.

He said he was “embarrassed in a way” that he had received the award ahead of other authors such as Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood.

A prodigious writer since the early 1980s, he has penned eight books, as well as scripts for film and television. The books have been translated into dozens of languages and won numerous awards.

But the author has remained more reclusive than some of his contemporary peers.

Ishiguro is best known for “The Remains of the Day,” which landed the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989 and was turned into an Oscar-nominated film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

He later admitted to writing the book in a prolific four-week period.

He had found further fame more recently with his 2005 novel “Never Let Me Go” and “When We Were Orphans,” published in 2000.

In awarding their prize on Thursday, the Nobel committee noted that Ishiguro is most associated with themes of memory, time and self-delusion.

Despite his enviable success, Ishiguro has appeared modest in interviews.

“I’m not a very inspired person,” he told the Financial Times in 1995. “I don’t have a lot of ideas.”

Asked what made novelists choose their often precarious occupation, he replied: “I won’t say writers are crazy people, because I don’t care for stereotypes. But something is sufficiently out of line in their structure as people.”

Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954 but moved to England at age 5, when his father began research at the National Institute of Oceanography.

Intended as only a temporary move, the family eventually settled permanently in Guildford, a town some 30 miles (50 kilometers) southwest of London.

After finishing school in the area, he enrolled at the University of Kent in Canterbury, where he studied English and philosophy.

The author, who plays the piano and guitar, has said his first ambition was to become a rock star, but he drifted into writing instead.

“This sounds very blase … but (writing) wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do,” he told the Financial Times in the same 1995 interview.

Indeed, Ishiguro worked in several professions before settling on writing, including as a grouse beater — flushing the birds and driving them toward hunters — for the queen mother at Balmoral Castle and as a social worker in Glasgow and London.

His writing career finally launched during a creative break from social work.

Ishiguro had enrolled in a master of arts course in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, where his potential was spotted by the publisher Faber, which signed him.

He began writing full time in 1982, enjoying sustained critical and commercial success ever since.

The Nobel winner revealed on Thursday he is in discussions to continue harnessing his Japanese roots in a perhaps unexpected way: by writing a graphic novel.

“This is a new thing for me and reconnects me to my Japanese childhood of reading manga,” he said.

Ishiguro only returned to visit Japan as an adult three decades after his family moved to Britain.

Both his first novel, “A Pale View of Hills” from 1982, and the subsequent one, “An Artist of the Floating World” from 1986, take place in Nagasaki a few years after World War II.

Even in his early novels, “The themes Ishiguro is most associated with are already present here: memory, time and self-delusion,” the Swedish Academy said on Thursday. “This is particularly notable in his most renowned novel, ‘The Remains of the Day,’ ” charting the life of a painfully shy, duty-obsessed English butler.

“Ishiguro’s writings are marked by a carefully restrained mode of expression, independent of whatever events are taking place,” the academy said.

In a 1991 interview with Nobel literature laureate Kenzaburo Oe, he said that the Japan he wrote about in “An Artist of the Floating World” was “very much my own personal, imaginary Japan.”

“This may have a lot to do with my own personal history. As a small child, I was taken away from the people I knew, like my grandparents and my friends.

“I couldn’t forget Japan because I had to prepare myself for returning to it. So I grew up with a very strong image in my head of this other country, a very important other country to which I had a strong emotional tie.”

He said in the 1995 interview with the Financial Times, “I’m beginning to see as I get older that my leaving Japan at the point when I did was, in complicated ways, a key defining thing.”

In a 1995 review in the London Review of Books of “Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan,” by John David Morley, Ishiguro wrote:

“The British and the Japanese may not be particularly alike, but the two races are exceedingly comparable. The British must actually believe this, for why else would they be displaying such a curious desperation to deny it? No doubt, they sense that to look at Japanese culture too closely would threaten a long-cherished complacency about their own. Hence the energy expended on sustaining an image of Japan as a place of fanatical businessmen, of hara-kiri and sci-fi gadgetry. Books, articles and television programmes focus on whatever is most extreme and bizarre in Japanese life; the Japanese people may be viewed as amusing or alarming, expert or devious, but they must above all be seen to be non-human. While they remain non-human, their values and ways will remain safely irrelevant. No wonder the British are so fond of the ‘inscrutability’ of Japanese faces.”

In his latest novel, “The Buried Giant” from 2015, an elderly couple go on a road trip through an archaic English landscape, hoping to reunite with their adult son, whom they have not seen in years.