Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Kazuo Ishiguro's Reflective Signs

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Kazuo Ishiguro's Reflective Signs

Article excerpt

The discrepancy emerging from the narrative gaps, ambiguities, and aporias riddling the Japanese British author Kazuo Ishiguro's prose on the one hand, and the confidence with which readers have assigned meaning to them on the other hand, draws attention to what, to my mind, is one of the fundamental and most intriguing aspects of Ishiguro's award-winning and widely translated fiction. What has been substituted for the author's textual blanks and ambivalences are predominantly emotional-psychological and/or "cultural" meanings. His work is indeed remarkable for the ways in which it communicates meanings and inspires readings on both of those levels simultaneously--albeit in ways that, as I hope to show in this essay, are far more complex than the superficial transparency of Ishiguro's prose may suggest. Readers have thus typically interpreted these narrative gaps, ambiguities, and aporias mimetically as representing an emotional-psychological condition, a feeling, a character trait and/or a cultural characteristic: for example the first-person narrators' silences or corseted idiom as necessarily standing for personal emotional restraint, British restraint and/or Japanese inscrutability. What has often been referred to in terms of the author's "floating signs," in other words, are read as symptoms pointing to the underlying condition, feeling, and/or "culture."

Going hand in hand with this is an emphasis on the characters' mistakes and how they could or should have been avoided. A therapeutic, remedial, and essentialist rhetoric thus characterizes much critique of Ishiguro's works. It is a rhetoric marked by the dichotomies of symptom versus cause, error versus truth, and effect versus cause, one presuming that the superficial must necessarily hide the essential underneath. That readers, despite, or precisely because of, the blanks and ambiguities riddling Ishiguro's prose have in this case been so confident in moving from form to what it supposedly signifies, represents, stands for, or hides is, at any rate in part, related to the fact that Ishiguro's writing, like that of many intercultural authors, is considered by many primarily as "ethnic fiction." As such, it is typically read for its content. (1) My argument here aims to offer a corrective not only to (self-)limiting readings of Ishiguro's fiction, but also to such mimetic approaches to transcultural and so-called ethnic writing in general.

Such readings and reading practices, as I shall argue in this essay, rely on readers' referential, emotional, and cultural assumptions and presuppose a transparency on the part of Ishiguro's prose that the latter defies. It is true that, on one level, the author's writing does invoke the kind of transparency that has triggered the aforementioned type of interpretations. One of the most significant and innovative aspects of Ishiguro's fiction, however, is precisely the ways in which it simultaneously and self-consciously resists such transparency. In this context it is important to note that Ishiguro's formal experimentalism and playfulness is not self-sufficiently postmodern, but rather ethically motivated. In this, Ishiguro's work speaks in significant and fresh ways to problems of representation relevant both to the ethics of its own reading and to current critical debates pertaining to the ethics of intercultural representation, cosmopolitanism, and reading in a global context.

In order to examine the diverse ways in which Ishiguro's fiction self- consciously resists, even as it invokes; mimetic interpretations, this essay considers the development of this strategy from one of his first short stories, "A Family Supper" (1983), through his first two novels, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986). In doing so, it focuses on Ishiguro's varied uses of indirectness and distancing, as well as on other techniques that help him to pause, interrupt, or divert the diegetic flow and thus signification. …

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