28 January 2006

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

Last night, I was watching The Island on DVD for the nth time. One of my reasons for liking this movie--aside from the scintillating Ewan McGregor--is the similarity of its theme with that of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel Never Let Me Go. Both deal with the issue of cloning and ideas on the essence of humanity, but Ishiguro decidedly takes on a more emotional approach and glosses over the ‘science-fiction’ aspect of his plot.

I read this book in late September 2005 and was blown away by its unabashed sincerity sans the melodrama. I loved Never Let Me Go so much that when The Man Booker Prize included it in their 2005 shortlist, I voted for it in the People’s Prize category. It was a biased vote, since I hadn’t read the other shortlisted works, but I had a strong affinity for the book. Other people may have felt the same way because Never Let Me Go received 500 votes in the aforementioned category as opposed to the 2005 Booker Prize winner, John Banville’s The Sea, which only garnered 184 votes.

Never Let Me Go centers on three characters: Kathy, Ruth and Tommy---close friends who are brought up in isolation along with other children in a boarding school called Hailsham in a British countryside. As the protagonist, Kathy narrates life in the boarding school in microscopic detail. Students are exposed to a high standard of education, with their guardians placing emphasis on good physical health and talent in the field of arts. Gradually, the reader is made to realize that Hailsham is no ordinary school and that its students are actually ‘very special’, bred for a particular purpose in life. The veil is lifted slowly, and by the end of the story, the horror that awaits these children is brought out from the suffocating layers of mundane conversations and concealed emotions.

Kazuo Ishiguro writes about his characters and their day-to-day experiences with psychological acuity and an exaggerated attention to detail, but deliberately holds back on explaining the actual significance of events as they happen--leaving his readers to wade through the controlled subtleties and discover the truth bit by bit. Skilled in the art of suppression, Ishiguro lets his stories unfold from the point of view of his restrained protagonists: the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day--who meticulously narrates his mundane regimen of running Lord Darlington’s household while remaining oblivious to the growing threat of a Second World War--and in this case, Kathy, who describes her life with Ruth and Tommy in a detached, almost robotic fashion that belies the undercurrent of emotions running through her. The truth is always disguised; even the name ‘Hailsham’ serves as a clever allusion to the contrived purpose of the boarding school--that of rearing its students in a sheltered atmosphere of love, solidarity, and academic excellence, only to send them out later on into the world as ‘spare parts’ like lambs for the slaughter.

In Hailsham, the best creative works of the students are sent to ‘the Gallery’, with a female stranger of unknown nationality called ‘Madame’ choosing among these pieces. None of the children know where these selected artworks actually go, but to have one’s ‘masterpiece’ chosen by the aloof Madame is considered an honor. Eventually, Kathy and the others discover that Madame is an advocate for their ‘kind’, using these works of art to justify to the outside world that ‘things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff…revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your soul.’

Unnervingly astute, Never Let Me Go forces us to examine ourselves and redefine our concept of humanity. Is Kathy merely a simulacrum of what it means to be human or can a perceived ghost in the shell, who has the ability to experience a whole gamut of human emotions such as happiness, longing, confusion and anguish, be considered human in every sense of the word? The book continually addresses the question on whether these unfortunate beings have souls or not, as well as the implications of subjecting these human-like entities to a cruel fate that they have never wished for.

Throughout the novel, the reader is also made witness to the complexities of the friendship that Kathy, Ruth and Tommy share. Kathy and Ruth are best friends, with Tommy as their close companion. Ruth and Tommy become a couple--and stay as a couple for years until adulthood--but the reader senses that Kathy and Tommy have an unmistakable regard for one another. This regard eventually translates into love but the two are too helpless to admit it, and out of respect for Ruth, place themselves under a self-imposed condition of utter denial and emotional restraint that goes on for years. It is the outspoken Ruth, who, nearing the end of her life after one or two organ donations, tells Kathy and Tommy that they are the ones who are truly meant to be together and advises them to make use of the time that is left before they too are ‘completed.’ But despite Ruth’s act of selflessness and benediction, Kathy and Tommy realize that the remaining time that they have isn’t enough--and never will be until they do something about it.

This is where the underlying theme of the novel reaches its crescendo, where these so-called clones exhibit such wonderfully human qualities that the reader cannot help but be affected by their predicament. While the novel’s title initially refers to a song called ‘Never Let Me Go’ which Kathy listens to again and again during her years at Hailsham, the book is all about never letting go--of one’s relationships and real feelings and of the possibility of transcending the confines of one’s supposed destiny. Indeed, it is this desire to transcend the present limits that makes Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and the rest of us human: we adhere to a philosophy of more--of seeking more than what is given to us, of going beyond our present capabilities, and of wanting to explore the breadth of a full human existence. And as Kathy and Tommy strive to be exempted from a fate of being ‘completed’ or ‘harvested’ and their eventual, reluctant acceptance of the doom that is spelled out for them, we see in their desperate efforts and in their final acts of selflessness--like soldiers dying for their countrymen--the manifestations of what it means to be truly human, even when the uncomprehending world thinks otherwise.

Ultimately, Never Let Me Go serves as a cautionary tale of sorts in an age where the line between ethics and human progress has become increasingly blurred, and where science reigns supreme. With his spare, cool prose, Ishiguro expertly strikes at the core of our being, strips off our original perceptions of humanness, and lets us recognize the sublime soul in every being that lives, breathes and feels.


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