Thursday 27 September 2012

A Pale View of the Hills

At the suggestion of Julie I have been reading 'A Pale View of the Hills' by Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Booker Prize in 1989 for his novel 'Remains of the Day'. 

I was left sad and a little disconcerted by this book. All the conversations and the relationships seemed rather stilted and awkward, even between Etsuko and her daughter Niki. The story is simply the thoughts of a woman, Etsuko, following the suicide of her older daughter Keiko, thinking back on a brief period in her life, when she was pregnant with her daughter and was living in post-war Nagasaki, and the friendship she formed with a strange woman who lived nearby. 

"I had never been inside the cottage prior to that afternoon, and I had been rather surprised when Sachiko had asked me in. In fact, I had sensed immediately that she had done so with something in mind, and as it turned out, I was not mistaken.
The cottage was tidy, but I remember a kind of stark shabbiness about the place; the wooden beams that crossed the ceiling looked old and insecure, and a faint odour of dampness lingered everywhere. At the front of the cottage, the main partition had been left wide open to allow the sunlight in across the veranda. For all that, much of the place remained in shadow." (p.17-8)

The dark and slightly forbidding atmosphere in the little cottage seem to mirror the woman herself and sense that she is both hiding things, and hiding from things. It is as if they are both lonely and recognise that in each other; Sachiko seems to deliberately isolate herself, shunning people, perhaps because she fears censure for having a relationship with an American man and Etsuko is married to a man who barely seems to acknowledge her, though she seems to have a close and friendly relationship with her father-in-law. Although they spend time together there is a formality and vague sense of discomfort when they talk. But then I found references to marriage and the changing relationships between couples quite interesting, probably telling you much about Japanese culture, before and after. Sachiko discussing her husband:

"My husband was like that, Etsuko. Very strict and very patriotic. He was never the most considerate of men. But he came from a highly distinguished family and my parents considered it a good match. I didn't protest when he forbade me to study English. After all, there seemed little point any more." (p.110)

Some visitors from Jiro's (Etsuko's husband) office call one evening:
"Jiro went back to his newspapers. He continued to eat the cake and I watched several crumbs drop on to the tatami. Ogata-San continued to gaze at the chess-board for some time.
'Quite extraordinary.' he said, eventually, 'what your friend was saying.'
'Oh? What was that?' Jiro did not look up from his newspaper.
'About him and his wife voting for different parties. A few years ago that would have been unthinkable.'
'No doubt'
'Quite extraordinary the things that happen now. But that's what's meant by democracy, I suppose.' Ogata-San gave a sigh. 'These things we've learnt so eagerly from the Americans, they aren't always so good.'
'No, indeed they're not.'
'Look what happens. Husband and wife voting for different parties. It's a sad state of affairs when a wife can't be relied on in such matters any more.' " (p.64-5)

Hanging over the story is the shadow of the war, and the sense of people not wanting to dwell on the past, that it is too terrible to look back. Also a sense of not knowing anything any more. The idea that before the war there was a sense of certainty, about life and the way it should be lived, and that was somehow disrupted. Sachiko has this sense that she should go back and live a quiet unassuming life with her uncle, but in the end announces she will be going off to America with 'Frank'. Etsuko similarly ends up leaving, and married to an Englishman, a story that we never hear. It's as if the changes brought about by the war are too profound to articulate. The two women on a day out together, with Sachiko's daughter Mariko:

"I had a rather precarious feeling, perched on the edge of that mountain looking out over such a view; a long way down below us, we could see the harbour looking like a dense piece of machinery left in the water. Across the harbour, on the opposite bank, rose the series of hills that led to Nagasaki. The land at the foot of the hills was busy with houses and buildings. Far over to our right, and harbour opened out on to the sea.
We sat there for a while, recovering our breath and enjoying the breeze. Then I said:
'You wouldn't think anything had ever happened here, would you? Everything looks so full of life. But all that area down there' - I waved my hand at the view below us -  'all that area was so badly hit when the bomb fell. But look at it now.'
Sachiko nodded, then turned to me with a smile. 'How cheerful you are today, Etsuko,' she said.
'But it's so good to come out here. Today I've decided I'm going to be optimistic. I'm determined to have a happy future. Mrs Fujiwara always tells me how important it is to keep looking forward. And she's right. If people didn't do that, then all this' - I pointed again at the view - 'all this would still be rubble.' " (p.110-11)

There is an attempt at hopefulness but I didn't feel it. Although Etsuko is relating her memories she is reserved and distant and I didn't feel I got to know her at all. There is nothing neat and tidy about this book. There is no ending or conclusion, it drifts to a close. Such is life.


  1. Thank you for visiting my blog - I see yours is very impressive!

    I have a love:hate relationship with Isiguru books. Couldn't put down Remains of the Day; but other like The Unconsoled, I struggled with. He works the same material and over, which s fair enough, but to my mind, with not enough variation.

  2. I recommend A Pale View of Hills, and I will be tracking down more of Ishiguro's works, probably The Remains of the Day next, as that would appear to be his most famous.

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