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Kazuo Ishiguro: People in Service, A Life of Meaning

Kazuo Ishiguro. Photo: Andrew Testa.

Nobel Laureate and Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, making a headlining appearance at this year’s National Book Festival, was asked why so many of his central characters work in service-oriented jobs.

A metaphor, he said, for the lives most of us lead.

Ishiguro’s haunting works include “The Remains of the Day,” “Never Let Me Go,” and his newest, “Klara and the Sun.” In each, the central character works in service to others. In “Remains,” it’s an English butler on an estate; in “Never,” a nurse who helps coordinate organ donations; in “Klara,” a robot created in the form of a little girl to help her owners avoid loneliness and heartbreak.

Ishiguro, 66, joined the online festival from his home in London. In a conversation with Marie Arana, the Library’s former literary director, he said the “person in service” archetype – mostly arrived at unconsciously — represents people living small lives beneath the waves of history. They “torture themselves” in a struggle to be good, decent people, in the hopes that it will contribute to a larger good.

“In every endeavor, we care about this so much, and this is what fascinates me about people and it touches me about people,” he said. “It moves me about human beings, in (their) struggle to do something that they think will bring them dignity and pride and a sense of self-worth. And so I often show people in service because that is such a huge part of who we are.”

It wasn’t the only insight of the talk. In a 40-minute conversation, Arana and Ishiguro shared their stories of having a childhood in one country and an adult life in another – Arana in Peru and the U.S., Ishiguro in Japan and the United Kingdom.

He was born in Nagasaki, but moved with his parents to England when he was five. Still, his parents had not originally planned to stay long, spoke Japanese at home, and the family generally regarded England as an interesting place they were passing through. They wound up staying, but Ishiguro, while adapting fully to English life, still regarded himself as Japanese.

“I certainly don’t think as myself as an Englishman with just a few years of a Japanese childhood somewhere at the beginning,” he said. “I think the Japanese side of myself runs all the way through.

“I saw the world around me, the only one I had direct contact with, as something that was slightly provisional and certainly the values were not something that were permanent,” he continued. “…they were more the customs of the natives who we should respect and look at with interest, but these were not absolute right and wrongs about how to behave. I had one set of values at home and another at school…I think I’ve grown up with that slight distance, of dislocation.”

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