Appearances can be deceptive. They are when one is in the company of Kazuo Ishiguro, much as they are when reading one of his books. Gentle and thoughtful, at times almost contemplative, his easy manner is disarming. His speech, like his writing, is so lucid that it makes everything he says seem so simple. But like memories, which are the warp and weave of all his novels, Ishiguro’s conversation is both as clear cut and as complex as the proverbial sound of one hand clapping. As he runs neatly down the stairs to greet me, not only does he comprehensively belie his fifty years of age but he presents more the image of youthful entrepreneur than mature, solitary author.
In fact the notion of successful businessman is probably not so wide of the mark. Reflecting on why JK Rowling’s books don’t sell especially well in paperback, he displays a keen interest in publishing strategies. His own latest novel, Never Let Me Go, was ready for publication last Autumn, but Ishiguro prefers to publish in the Spring, free from pre-Christmas competition and once the high profile book prizes have stopped stealing all the limelight. In every aspect of his life, and not just his writing, this is a man who rushes nothing and considers carefully his every response. He would, one suspects, play a mean game of chess.
It’s not surprising to learn, therefore, that Never Let Me Go, has been some fifteen years in the making, during which time he has followed up the success of Remains of the Day with two further novels. “Up in my study I’ve got these pieces of writing about people I call ‘students’ and they go back to the early nineties. I kept writing these things, thinking that my next novel would be about these people. I called them ‘students’ all the time and I knew they were sort of students but not real students – there was no campus and no teachers anywhere near them. I didn’t know quite who they were but I knew that some strange thing hung over them and I sensed that I could use this little community to somehow talk about – it sounds rather grand – the human condition.”
Grand? Well, maybe. Certainly it sounds rather mysterious: a warning to take with a pinch of salt Ishiguro’s suggestion that Never Let Me Go is “really a very simple book.” Compared with the structural complexities of The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans, it is. Kathy, a thirty-something woman who works as a carer, recalls her friendship with Ruth and Tommy, following the trails of childhood memories, little sequences of related incidents. These are memories described with utmost delicacy and Ishiguro’s typical attention to detail, progressing relatively clearly from childhood into young adulthood.
But this isn’t what Ishiguro means by ‘simple’. Never Let Me Go, he argues, is simple because “it just focuses on a sad thing about the human condition, which is that we’re all eventually going to get ill and die, or in some other way we’ll die. We have a limited time span. It’s just that, in the case of these people, their time is even more limited and that’s why we get a certain perspective on it that we perhaps don’t in our everyday lives. They have to make their decisions, live their lives out against this one big fate.”
That fate is only slowly revealed to the three friends during their school years: a drip-fed realisation that they, like their school friends, are cloned humans reared for the purpose of donating their vital organs to the sick in return for an inevitable early death. For the reader this at least makes sense of the strangeness hovering over what in many ways is an idyllic upbringing. It is disconcerting to realise, however, that Ishiguro has done his utmost to avoid engaging with the do’s and don’ts of this most emotive of ethical footballs.
“I don’t think [cloning] worries me,” he muses. “At the moment, it’s something I watch with interest. And to be absolutely frank, I haven’t made up my mind about whether this is like the moment when the atom bomb was beginning to be invented or whether this is something else altogether: you know, this is like when we had breakthroughs with tuberculosis. It could be both, I don’t know, and I think it will severely test our abilities to use science well.”
Dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that the idea of cloning is essentially a metaphor for Ishiguro’s imagined world, much as being tiny is the guiding metaphor in Gulliver’s Lilliput. “Are we moving towards a world that is uncaring enough to do that? Do we already have that kind of world in some senses? I’d rather ask that than more literally ask what path are we going down with this, because there’s a time and a place to argue about cloning and there might be a time when novels are the right place to do that. Right now I can think of more obvious ways to enter debates like that.” What Ishiguro did not want to do, he says, is suggest that Hailsham, the school for clones, is in any way a school for slaves, a symbol of oppression or a place to rebel against. To that extent, Never Let Me Go is deliberately amoral – and that’s never simple.
In Hailsham, for all that it is peopled by children described with the same humour and poignancy evident in his earlier evocations of childhood, Ishiguro has set out to uncover an unspoken attitude of contemporary western culture. “It’s almost like a heightened embodiment of what childhood is, in a sense. Alright, some boarding schools are weird, and they might be brutal or whatever, but the idea that here is a physical place where children are kept apart from the outer world – that echoes with all our childhoods to some extent. So although I didn’t go to a boarding school, I think that most children, at least the children who are lucky enough, are brought up in a bubble.”
He’s conscious of taking this approach with his own daughter, aware of how, as adults we speak to children with smiley voices and conspire to fool them that the world is a really nice place. “Two people rowing in a shop: you walk in and they suddenly stop, because they know that this conspiracy has to be maintained. Because everyone feels instinctively that when children are young they should be allowed to stay in this little bubble, this peculiar conditioned atmosphere.” It’s a peculiarly adult perspective on childhood and, as Never Let Me Go eventually concedes, one fraught with complex choices.
Bubbles, after all, are there to be burst and life isn’t, Ishiguro admits, as straightforward as he once imagined. “When I was a young guy I think I probably did think that life would be clean enough to fit the model that I used in my earlier novels; that when you got to the end of [your life] you could actually look back at it and see some clear path down which you had come. And those early novels, they were often about those people whose principles were wrong: they set off with their compass slightly wonky and at the end of their lives they can look back and see where they went wrong.”
At fifty, he no longer believes that this is really how older people think. “How your life goes is determined by so many things you can’t control and of course you compromise, you have all these conflicting values. The path you take through life is a bit of a mess but you just do the best you can; you drift and you’re picked up by winds and put down again.” By bringing mortality into focus, as he does in Never Let Me Go, he seems to argue that at least there are limits to that messiness. “There’s very little scope for [the clones] to have any kind of individual path” – nor, by implication, for the rest of us either. “But although there is limited scope that scope is important.” What Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are free to concentrate upon, says Ishiguro, “is how to be good friends to each other, who to love and how to live decent lives. These things they can change; mistakes can be rectified. It’s the difference between having had a decent time and not having had a decent time.” It’s that simple.