2016年9月13日 星期二

Not to be reminded of the Past- A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro


Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills, Vintage books, 1982

Similar to some other Ishiguro’s novels, A Pale View of Hills is about traumatic memories and grievances. A Japanese woman, Etsuko, living in England whose elder daughter just committed suicide, remembers the days when she was living in post-WWII Nagasaki. Many characters in the story had lost their beloveds in the war and at the same time were experiencing the radical change of the country during the American Occupations. While it was quite hard to adapt to that dramatic change, the characters, including Etsuko, constantly emphasize that they did not want to live in the past and had to look forward to the future. Rather than expressing their grievances, they constantly told people that they are doing well in life. I think that people are indeed afraid of looking back. Just like Etsuko, who seems to be constructing another character Sachiko, to talk about her memories of her elder daughter. I think that Ishiguro is satirizing such fear of being reminded of the past. Such fear makes critical reflections on the wartime Japan difficult and at the same time, the people are forever haunted by this trauma. Many of them blindly stick to the politically correct way of interpreting the war and crave for the western influences while the elder generation like Etsuko’s father-in-law refused to accept the change.

The motherhood portrayed in this novel seems to symbolize the anxiety living in the post-war Japan. The mothers are trying to focus on their children or their kids to be born, wishing the next generation will have a bright future but at the same time, it means to repress their grievances. ‘But to watch them each day, busily involved with their husbands and their children, I found this hard to believe- that their lives had ever held tragedies of wartime…For at that point in my life, I was still wishing to be left alone (13).’ The family responsibility makes them hard to reflect on their personal experience. They wish for the best for the future but are not really sure what they want for the future. Looking down at the wartime damages in Nagasaki, Etsuko says ‘I’m determined to have a happy future. Mrs. Fujiwara always tells me how important it is to keep looking forward (111).’ She is often told how she would be a wonderful mother while sympathizing the struggle of her mother friends have been through.

While claiming to be optimistic about the future, the protagonists do not mention a clear plan and the future seems to be a fantasy about the west. Sachiko fantasizes a bright future after going to America, although she was following an unreliable boyfriend. Similarly, Etsuko is finding a place that can fit her imagination. ‘When your father first brought me down here, Niki, I remember thinking how truly like England everything looked. All these fields, and the horses too. It was just the way I always imagined England would be and I was so pleased (182).’ The excitement about a new place is not encountering and learning something new but how reality resembles imagination.

What’s contradictory is that they do not seem to be as optimistic as they claim since Sachiko and Etsuko were afraid of wasting their lives staying in Japan. Etsuko was apparently a stereotypical good wife and daughter-in-law when she was in Japan, being respectful and obedient to her husband and father-in-law. We do not know her thoughts about the new norms of democracy and woman rights after the war but her family does not seem to adopt those liberal norms. I think the difficulties of understanding and reflecting new ideas are due to the lack of reflection in the past. Shiego, the teacher of the Ogata’s school, comments on the pre-war education system, ‘in your day, children in Japan were taught terrible things. They were taught lies of the most damaging kind. Worst of all, they were taught not to see, not to question (147).’ I am quite sympathetic of Ogata, whose beliefs and norms, are shaken overnight after Japan’s defeat. Shiego seems just to stick to a politically correct view, which is to denounce the past beliefs thoroughly. The two generations do not seem to want to understand each other. I guess this may cause the confusion about the future of the country.


This novel is quite difficult and elliptical. Lots of things are left unsaid. It is elliptical since the memory is painful. It seems that I was infected by the sadness and confusion of the protagonists after reading this novel…