The butler and the organ donor

In reading much about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize over the last year and the incredible subtle writing he has done to earn it, I’ve been surprised at the fact that no commentators, at least none that I have seen, have noted the incredible similarity shared by his two most well-known novels Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

(Belated Spoiler Alert: for those who haven’t yet read Never Let Me Go and are not aware of the great dark secret at its medical heart, stop reading now. I disregarded a similar warning years ago before I read the book and have still not got over it.)

Admittedly, many critics have noted that both novels take well-known genres or British tropes – the British butler gallantly serving the gentry in the bucolic countryside and the teenager growing up at the exclusive British boarding school – and turn them on their heads. Other writers like to talk about the ways Ishiguro is British or Japanese or both, and how this dual sensibility plays out in his novels.

Much has been made of the fact that Remains of the Day is a haunting meditation on memory and class. And how Never Let Me Go is an arguably more haunting meditation on our mortality through the allegory of a sci-fi blend of realism and fantasy, all told in Ishiguro’s typically understated, seemingly bland but also subtly fantastical style. These types of observations tend to accentuate the novel’s differences and blur their deep commonality.

For in one overarching way, the novels are in many ways the same, despite the differences in their settings, their characters, and plots. The clue is in the names of the narrators. In Remains of the Day, the butler we come to know so well, even better than he himself does, never gets beyond his formal last name, “Stevens.” But in Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro goes one step further: we never learn the name of the narrator. All we know she is female, and grows from childhood to early adulthood over the course of the novel.

This namelessness is at the heart of both novels. For while Ishiguro has written one of the great English butler novels and one of the great dystopian sci-fi novels of all time, in both cases he has written the same story in vastly different settings, and across the not-always-solid boundaries of age, class, and gender. For in both cases, in the narrator’s voices, which carry much of both novels, and in the respective plots as they unfold, Ishiguro has written a story of duty, of duty as it transcends age and class and gender.

It is also perhaps where both novels derive much of their unfamiliarity and power in an age where the pursuit of individual fulfillment and happiness has become our guiding principle.

For what is so heartbreaking in both cases is the way each character selflessly sacrifices his and her own happiness out of a sense of duty: to a master, to a way of life, to a society, to the way things are. Where many of us would question the way things are, where most novels would show the character at least trying to fight against the circumstances in which they find themselves, whether they win or not, Ishiguro shows us a different struggle. The struggle to serve, to conform to expectations, to do one’s duty, with only the occasional exquisitely rendered bout of self-doubt.

Ishiguro is the novelist of duty and perhaps, if we want to get philosophical or spiritual about it, of surrender. But the strange thing in both cases is that the narrators have surrendered before the novels have begun.

This is why both novels are essentially the same story, and in large part why they are both so powerful.

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