Ishiguro Anticipated Brexit, Trump

Kazuo Ishiguro

Wednesday

Here’s an overdue congratulations to Kazuo Ishiguro, the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’ve posted on Ishiguro’s Buried Giant  and thought long and hard about Remains of the Day since reading it in the 1990s. A recent article in Electric Lit by Alexandra d’Abbadabie picks up on a theme that I’ve identified as well: Ishiguro is good at detecting darkness beneath surface civility.

Or as the Nobel committee put it, he “uncover[s] the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

Observing that the novel was written during the Margaret Thatcher era, d’Abbadabie observes that Remains of the Day helps us understand why people hitch themselves to authoritarian figures who screw them over. Mostly set in the years prior to World War II, the novel is narrated by Stevens, an exemplary butler who slavishly follows his master. His low point comes when he fails to question Lord Darlington, a fascist sympathizer, for sending a Jewish servant back to Germany.  As Stevens explains to the head of housekeeping,

The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.

Darlington agrees, explaining to him at one point,

Democracy is something for a bygone era. The world’s far too complicated a place for universal suffrage and the like.

What does Stevens get out of this arrangement? By aligning himself with the legendary British tradition of butlers, he is able to hold on to his dignity. As d’Abbadabie puts it,

He knows he’s being played, a small cog in the greater machine of things, and comforts himself in the mythology of The Great English Tradition.

In America, it’s useful to see white nationalists, especially as related to the Confederate statues, in this same light. It doesn’t matter whether Trump is taking away healthcare, enriching the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, and stripping consumer protections. Many of his followers never thought they had control over those issues anyway. What matters is that he affirms the proud tradition of white heritage, along with such patron saints as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In return, they will slavishly believe anything he tells them.

D’Abbadabie says that last year she saw such thinking everywhere:

Reading this novel after the Brexit vote, after “President Trump” became reality, is incredible…I could see him, in the middle-aged white men openly talking about English cultural supremacy, English pride in June 2016“we call this land of ours Great Britain,” Stevens says early on in the novel. 

In my own post on Ishiguro, I too saw him anticipating, not only Brexit, but the rise of the extreme right in Europe and the United States. Buried Giant shows Merlin enchanting a dragon’s breath so that the entire nation will forget the civil strife between the Britons and the Saxons. Unfortunately, the dragon is getting old and the forgetfulness charm is fading. It’s only a matter of time before tribal memories will return and war again will break out. A Saxon warrior predicts the end of the Britons:

“[W]ho knows what old hatred will loosen across the land now? We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now? We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”

“How right to fear it, sir,” Wistan said. “The giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbors’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging. And even as they move on, our armies will grow larger, swollen by anger and thirst for vengeance. For you Britons, it’ll be as a ball of fire rolls towards you. You’ll flee or perish. And country by country, this will become a new land, a Saxon land, with no more trace of your people’s time.

The difference between Remains of the Day and Buried Giant is that Ishiguro’s vision has gotten darker. At the end of the earlier novel, fascism is a thing of the past and Stevens is trying to figure out how to respond to his new and much more informal American master. We reflect upon the irony of his ending up here after selling his soul and giving up love to preserve the Great British Tradition.

In Buried Giant, by contrast, bloody tribalism looms. After a remarkably long period of peace, which includes the Pax Americana and the founding of the European Union, are we about to sink once again into nationalist hatreds? The signs are worrisome.

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