rev. of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Issue #53
Winter 1990-91

Kazuo Ishiguro's justifiably acclaimed novel,
The Remains of the Day, has been considered unique due to the fact that the writer, a Japanese who grew up in England, has demonstrated his brilliance in projecting his imagination into the mental habits of a British butler, Stevens, who serves in the household of Lord Darlington. Stevens' language is upper-class British. But the philosophical undercurrents of the novel are Japanese, if not universal.

Stevens speaks of uniquely Japanese themes within the context of a British upper-class household: the matter of personal honor; the necessity for determining the moral status of an employer; of a group named "the Hayes Society" which determines the standards for "greatness" in a butler; of personal "smells"; of loyalty as a basic trait of character. The easiest analogy, of course, would be the traditional Japanese relationship between vassal and lord, which is a popular theme in Japanese novels and films. But what makes the understated assumptions of the novel more Japanese than British is the emphasis placed by Mr. Ishiguro on "frame"
(ba): the definition of one's self in terms of one's associates, rather than on the Western concept of "attribute"
(shikaku) status acquired by birth or by individual achievements. The point of view is also, in an understated way, particularly Japanese. Stevens, as a servant with no real access to the centers of power, occupies the position of the
madogiwazoka "the man who sits by the window" and observes. This is a privileged perspective, one which enables the powerless observer of the center of power to make significant moral judgments. Stevens says: "For we were, as I say, an idealistic generation for whom the question was not simply one of how well one practiced one's skills, but
to what end one did so; each of us harboured the desire to make our own small contribution to the creation of a better world, and saw that, as professionals, the surest means of doing so would be to serve the great gentlemen of our times in whose hands civilization had been entrusted."

This is an extraordinarily readable book. In its intimate observations of the introduction of "professionalism" into what was once a tradition-bound world, it details the erosion of the moral sense, in both master and man, in the essential matter of shared moral purpose, that has come to characterize the 20th century.