Sunday, February 01, 2009

Book Club Meeting: A PALE VIEW OF HILLS, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Welcome to the February Book Club!

I've already said way too much about this book. Anyone else want to open the floor?


Ann Victor said...

I'll jump in!

I'm afraid this story didn't resonate with me. I was drawn along by the characters, wanting to get to know more, so I knew there was more complexity to Ishigura's writing than first appeared, but by the end of the book there were too many unanswered questions for me. I was left frustrated and wondering at the point of the book.

The destruction of the Japanese way of life by the bomb (Etsuko's father in law and Mrs Fujiwara, to name a few) was clear and poignant, as was the psychological damage to Sachiko and her daughter Mariko.

But Etsuko herself remained too obscure for me to be able to relate to her or to interpret the point of her struggles.

I could sya more, but will leave the floor to someone else now! :)

moonrat said...

I was frustrated, too--but in a good way. Whatever that means. But the reason I have to keep coming back to talk about it is because for me, this book is like an itch right under the skin. It came THIS close to something wild and/or horrible and it almost feels like something was said, but I'm hoping someone else tells me what it is, because I didn't quite get it myself.

Of course, no one else CAN tell me--we're all equally stuck.

But Anne, you make a good point that the book is about fallout and desperation, and, I think, well done in those respects.

Ann Victor said...

Yes, the book is very well constructed.

The strict formality of the dialogue and of the interaction between the characters was incredible. If one thinks of the Japanese traditions of kyudo or ikebana: the ritualistic displays, the simplicity of form & movement, the discipline needed, all on the surface and yet hiding something deeper, something almost sinister. That was Etsuko. And Ishiguro achieved that effect to perfection.

But - in the end - the sparseness was a bit too sparse for me. I needed something more to grasp, something more that allowed me to actually feel and see Etsuko as real.

My reading of this novel may have been inhibited, as I had just read The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, which was beautiful: challenging, but accessible.

I do think I'm going to have to read A Pale View again some time in the future. It's niggling me; as you say an itch under the skin!

moonrat said...

On your rec, Ann, I just bought THE GIFT OF RAIN. I have to be honest, though... it's number 18 on my TBR! I'm not sure what happened, but I haven't been keeping up with myself lately. Sigh. I'm looking forward, though. It looks wonderful.

Ann Victor said...

Eek! Now I'm stressing! I loved Gift of Rain, but hope I haven't raved about it so much I've raised impossible expectations :O (if you need the dedication translated just ask!)

Will be keen to know your thoughts on it (when you've got through books 1-17!).

Kim Kasch said...

Oh...after these reviews that's one I won't pick up.

I just bought The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, I've heard reviews that go both ways, so I want to see for myself.

Still reading: Me Talk Pretty One Day, American Gods, and Eat, Love, Pray. My stack keeps growing.

moonrat said...

Kim--I LOVE this book! I wonder where all my fellow Ishiguro-lovers are today? Probably watching the Super Bowl. Sad.

Anita said...

Yikes! Just got in from out-of-town. Liked this book because the characters stuck with me...but there was some are Etsuko and Sachiko the same person???

And I kept trying to mentally kick Etsuko's husband in the arse...what a ninny he was...but then I thought that's kind of how I treat my mom-in-law (like he treats his dad)...basically ignoring her. Hmmm. Perhaps I need a kick in the arse.

And then there's the whole mom perspective on things....if you're a sane mom, you KNOW you're going to take your child to live where it's safe, with the rich uncle, even if that means your own life will be boring...and drowning your child? Heck no.

Am I missing something? Basically, I didn't like any of the characters, except for perhaps the father-in-law...he was so concerned about his good the end, we don't have much more than that.

(My word verification is toetown!)

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I forgot this book club was today! And the time zone difference isn't helping me! And there is an Alaska volcano preparing to blow so I've been keeping my laptop stored in a plastic garbage bag! (OK, that's true -- but a really miserable excuse.) I promise to check back tonight or tomorrow and attempt to add some comments after I read all the above (which I haven't yet done because I have to go retrieve some children from a friends' house)... My apologies, Mr. Ishiguro -- you deserve better than this, Superbowl or no Superbowl, volcano or no volcano.

Kim Kasch said...

Never been a football fan, but I did see the red flag challenge - that was interesting.

I won't cross the book off for good - on your advice.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I have the radio on as I write this, and a jazz musician on NPR just said "jazz is also what you leave out." That for me was Ishiguro's Pale View of Hills. I loved this book. I had no trouble with the distant characters. For me, the whole effect was extremely haunting, a great commentary on postwar Japan and Japanese culture (with its emphasis on discretion or even concealment) in general, but even more so, the important first step in Ishiguro's investigation of memory (to be continued in the more beloved Remains of the Day). I could go on about what I loved specifically -- everything from the setting (like the creepy wasteland beyond Etsuko's apartments, with its buggy waterfilled trenches) to the elliptical language and specific mysteries and twists of the plot.

But before I go on too long, let me confess what I greatly misunderstood when I read this long ago: (spoiler coming here, thanks Anita for bringing it up!) -- my understanding was that Etsuko had completely invented Sachiko, as a mask for her own traumatic memories and inability to deal with the suicide of her daughter. I thought I had located specific clues to this, and it certainly all fits with Ishiguro's 'unreliable narrator' tendencies and his belief (as I read it) that history is not fixed so much as a source that we all dip into to construct our own memories -- in other words, something we willingly appropriate and warp.

HOWEVER, before posting this, I did a quick search, and just read a quote from the author in which he says that the two women are not one and the same! So, perhaps Etsuko colored her memories, rather than inventing as much as I'd guessed. I still love the book. I think it works on many levels. I'm not disagreeing in any way with people who didn't find it gripping -- that's just as interesting to me. (Note, I did not re-read this recently as planned, I'm relying on my old impressions for earlier readings.) Do you have more to say or ask, Moonrat? I'd love to hear.

And for those who aren't intrigued by this book, please do consider Ishiguro's later Remains of the Day (World War II era, England) which has more clarity but some of the same philosophical questions about how we obfuscate, delude ourselves, suppress or investigate our own memories...

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

P.S. I only just now discovered the spoiler comments over at the book book review, which I hadn't read before posting (and maybe just as well, or I would have felt like I was just adding to the confusion). It did remind me that the creepiest, poignant, and most confusing part of the story for me was the childhood murder allusions, and especially that scene you referenced, Moonrat, where it seems that Etsuko was threatening or planning to do something to Mariko in chap. 6, with the mentions of the rope dragging on her foot (chills). It's definitely all recalled in a dreamlike way, where you mix together your fears and guilt with confusing or damning images.

Of the people who loved the book, many seem to have "mis"-interpreted it as I/we did, Moonrat. What does that say about how we read books and/or how an author constructs them? Is Ishiguro, in later interviews (I don't think there are many) being deliberately unclear or willfully concealing a tantalizing pattern he himself created?

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

My last comment until others weigh in, I promise. I'm still puzzling over the quote I stumbled across in a journal article and read too quickly the first time. Here it is. I guess Ishiguro ISN'T saying whether Sachiko existed, one way or the other. So Sachiko and Etsuko could be the same person. I think Ishiguro wants us to stop worrying about the details and focus on the main point, which is how Etsuko uses the memories:

Even Ishiguro himself,
in an interview conducted by Gregory Mason, makes this point absolutely clear when
asked whether Etsuko and Sachiko “were not one and the same person:

"What I intended was this: because it’s really Etsuko talking about herself, and possibly that somebody else, Sachiko, existed or did not exist, the meanings that
Etsuko imputes to the life of Sachiko are obviously the meanings that are relevant to her (Etsuko’s) own life. Whatever the facts were about what happened to Sachiko and her daughter, they are of interest to Etsuko now
because she can use them to talk about herself. (Mason, 1989: 337)"

This quote from Chang Gung Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences
1:1 (April 2008), article by Yu-Cheng Lee

Ello said...

Oh my gosh I just wrote a whole long post and lost it! I hate blogger today!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I can't repeat it all. I'll just say this = Andromeda is absolutely right and I loved her post on perception on this book. I adored this book - Moonie didn't we review this last year or am I dreaming? I even thought I had comments...

Anyway I think this book is meant to be this sparse on purpose. We know what we know and we are left to guess, ponder and endlessly discuss the rest. And Ishiguro is totally a masterful storyteller in this manner. And Etsuko is so unreliable that it makes sense that there is confusion as to whether she is Sachiko or not. After all her memories have become so confused with those of another woman that at times the confusion seems to affect us also. I think it is intentional and well done.

I really loved this book.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Ello, I'm so glad you're here. Now I can add this additional tantalizing bit of speedy internet research -- a few quotes from a spring 2008 Paris Review interview with Ishiguro.

Looking back at your first published novel, A Pale View of Hills, what do you think of it now?

I’m very fond of it, but I do think it’s too baffling. The ending is almost like a puzzle. I see nothing artistically to be gained by puzzling people to that extent. That was just inexperience—misjudging what is too obvious and what is subtle. Even at the time the ending felt unsatisfactory.

What were you trying to accomplish?

Let’s say somebody is talking about a mutual friend, and he’s getting angry about this friend’s indecisiveness about a relationship he’s in. He’s getting absolutely furious. Then you realize that he’s appropriating the friend’s situation to talk about himself. I thought this was an interesting way to narrate a novel: to have somebody who finds it too painful or awkward to talk about his own life appropriate someone else’s story to tell his own. I’d spent a lot of time working with homeless people, listening to people’s stories about how they’d got to this place, and I’d gotten very sensitive to the fact that they weren’t telling those stories in a straightforward way.
In A Pale View of Hills, the narrator is a late-middle-aged woman, and her grown-up daughter has committed suicide. This is announced at the beginning of the book. But instead of explaining what led up to that, she starts to remember a friendship she had back in Nagasaki, just after the end of the Second World War. I thought the reader would think, Why the hell are we hearing about this other thing? What does she feel about her daughter’s suicide? Why did the daughter commit suicide? I hoped readers would start to realize that her story is being told through the story of her friend. But because I didn’t know how to create the texture of memory, I had to resort to something quite gimmicky at the end, where a scene back in Japan blurs into a scene that obviously took place much more recently. Even now, when I do an event to talk about my latest book, somebody asks, Were those two women the same woman? What happens at the end on the bridge when “you” switches to “we”?

moonrat said...

Oh man. Andromeda, thank you for all your comments, and Ello, thank you for what you TRIED to post (you're not delusional; I keep bringing this book up because it haunts me).

The Paris Review thing is AWESOME. I love seeing authors revisit their debuts. I think his comments are... wonderful.

That said, I think I know where the book exists for ME at this point. For me, Sachiko was a fabrication, a means of confessing, and Mariko was Keiko, the child about whom Etsuko had so many dark thoughts and who ended up having too many dark thoughts about herself.

All the discussion here has helped me be comfortable in answering these questions for myself--clearly, whatever I want to think about the book is as right as anyone else's interpretation--and at this point, it doesn't even matter what Ishiguro had in mind! He left it to us.

moonrat said...

Re: the serial killer attacking children: Andromeda, I'm glad to know you also perceived this dark thread. I don't think Etsuko was the killer, but I do think she contemplated killing Mariko/Keiko at that last weak moment, seeing how Keiko was destroying her relationship with "Frank" (or whoever her husband turned out to be), how Keiko was going to be the chains holding her back in Japan. I think (my plot interpolations, here, and nothing more) she not-so-briefly entertained the idea of letting Keiko's body be found like the other children's at the river, and letting her death go over as another tragedy victim of the serial killer.

And although she didn't go through with it there, it's clear that in other ways Etsuko still sees herself as Keiko's murderer, the one who drove her to suicide. What we're missing is the middle years, but for Etsuko the sin was wrought right in the beginning.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I agree about the serial murder thread. I think Etsuko was considering killing Mariko/Keiko --or at least wondering, what if? --and remembered something in the news (or inadvertently created a false memory of this) because she was thinking it might cover her own actions. I don't buy into a lot of psychoanalytic theory, but I bet an analyst could have a field day with this book. The more I read about memory, the more I think our memories are suspect.

Anita said...

I thought it wasn't a serial killer going after the kids, but perhaps their mothers killing them...there were so many mothers doing it, it seemed like a serial killer.

moonrat said...

Anita--it's a good point and crossed my mind. Perhaps it's a commentary on the post-War desperation, and if it's not out of the realm of possibility for Etsuko, who lives a life more priveleged than some people around her, to consider that kind of action, surely it must also have occured to others.

moonrat said...

You know what hasn't come up yet--Estuko's strange relationship with the man she lived with (I can't remember--is he an uncle or a father-in-law?). Also, clearly, she's leaving one man to run off with another; she's pregnant (if she's even pregnant) with a Japanese child, and will very shortly be leaving for the UK, where she will have a half-half child. Who is she married to? Could the strange, unhappy, and stifled relationship with the uncle figure be some kind of symbol of her marriage? There's a kind of barely-scratched surface about that plot thread.

Anita said...

I just finished THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy...that mother also would've preferred her son dead than have him suffer the aftermath of nuclear warfare.

Since authors of THE ROAD and A PALE VIEW OF HILLS are both men, I wonder how accurately they portray what a mother would want to do. Hmmm...

moonrat said...

Oooo, interesting question. Is it maybe a sign that I shouldn't have kids that it all seemed totally plausible to me?

Sorry, I actually do have something to say about that, now that I think about it. I really didn't like THE ROAD--not just because I found it bleak and depressing. I didn't buy anything about the mother character; I didn't understand elements of the premise, including her suicide and desire for her family all to die, and as a result I guess I didn't buy the outcome because I didn't buy the premise (which, even ROAD lovers will have to admit, is kind of vague).

Meanwhile, in A PALE VIEW OF HILLS the pathology is so elaborately developed that you (or I, at least) found myself buying it. Part of the wonder is the discomfort at the fact that Ishiguro can make you feel that way. He does something like that with each book.

But does anyone know of books by women where mothers contemplate killing their children?

Ann Victor said...

Okay after reading the comments I'm definitely going to have to reread Pale View.

Andromeda - great excerpt from the Paris Review interview

Anita said...

I can't think of any women authors who wrote about a mother who wanted her biological child(ren) dead! I'm going to send some feelers out to other reading friends and get back to you.

Wait...wasn't there a Japanese or Chinese story where the mother drowned her baby in a bathtub? I think the mother hated the husband? Is that ringing a bell with anyone? (i'm getting too old for full memory retrieval...I could probably get the answer on a multiple choice test).

Ello said...

Anita - That was the Joy Luck club.

And what is that syndrome that causes mother's to kill their children? Not postpartum depression - munchausen? van hausen? van halen?

eh you know what I mean.

Andromeda - I loved that interview and I loved his explanation because I really felt that was exactly it. Her telling another's story to tell her own.

There was another book - a ghost story I read long ago about a woman with a child who falls in love with a man who does not want children and she kills her child to be with the man and then they are haunted by the ghost of the child. That story was what Pale view of hills reminded me of with the Sachiko and her daughter issue.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I tried to think of a book about a convincing homicidal mother. No success. But one book I love about a woman who does not enjoy or trust or feel comfortable with her own creepy, increasingly murderous son: Lionel Shriver's WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. I loved that book as well; amazing voice and so much honesty from the mother character, saying things women don't feel comfortable saying. Though note -- Shriver is not a mother either, and as wonderfully as she writes, there were a few minor scenes I didn't buy, because I didn't think a mother would react as this mother did. But only a few.

Anita said...

Ello: I must read the ghost story! What is the title?

Andromeda: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is now on my to-read list. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This book is beyond fab...I read it in graduate school where I developed a love of Japanese lit. One analysis is that Etsuko and Sachiko are one in the same. That perhaps the the pain in her life was so hard to bear...she gave it another name. Hmmm...? Check out the book Norwegian Wood, it's a good one too.

angelle said...

oi this is what i get for being busy this past week. i missed the discussion on the book that i so wanted to discuss!!! booohooo.

i just wanted to say i believe that both women DO exist, but do they exist as they did in real life? i dont think so. i think we get a skewed perception and sort of reinvention and reflection from etsuko who is displacing and perhaps blurring her own memories.

well, even if that wasn't ishiguro's intention, he's done something amazing unintentionally then.

this is by far my favorite of his texts.

my word veri is horsespa! heehehe. is that where horses go to relax?

Marie said...

The following might interest you: an Ishiguro interview where he discusses "A Pale View of the Hills."

Anonymous said...

"Beloved" is the story of a previously enslaved woman who escapes to freedom with her children, but is discovered and kills one of them, rather than see her go back into slavery. This dead child continues to haunt the characters throughout most of the book. Like A Pale View of Hills, you get this information pretty much up front, but the rest of the novel works to help you piece together what happened.