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Kazuo Ishiguro's debut novel A Pale View of Hills was one such book I borrowed from Just Books, a chain of libraries that has sprouted in many cities in India. The concept is a bit more high-tech than the old libraries I used to frequent back when childhood was not just a memory. For just around $3 you can take out as many books as you want, only 1 at a time, but unlimited through the month. And then there is this little machine. You place your card on what I can only describe as a reading kiosk - you then place the book next to it, and the touchscreen lights up in recognition. You are then on your way to either returning or issuing the book. What I especially like is that you can order a book from any of Just Books' other libraries in the city. I have ordered Girl in Translation, and am waiting now for it arrive. Anyway, all this reminds me of the old government-run library that I used to go to - musty, moldy and piled high with books. I had 5 membership cards then, carefully accumulated through what means I now forget. And my friends and I used to literally fight over the latest additions to the Famous Five collection. "Uncle uncle," we used to pester the librarian, "please keep this book for me na, please Uncle." The "Uncle" would oblige, hiding away a few books for us to devour the next time we visited. Ah, those were good times. It's strange the things that memory stores - sometimes I think the mind is a library of its own - it has its own way of cataloging the memories that swirl through it every day. Some stay. Some are lost somewhere in its labyrinths. You need a good card to retrieve them. I call that card experience. All these memories in our lives...just how do we remember them all? Do we need to?
Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills is a fascinating read into the way that memories shape our past. I honestly believe that that it's not the past that shapes our memories, but really memories that play havoc with it. Etsuko, the narrator here, finds memory not a keeper, because for her the past is not to be remembered. Floating through the novel is an atmosphere of doom. Set in Nagasaki, just after the bombing, there is an undercurrent, a dark stream of unsaid thoughts and actions. Ishiguro displays all the talent that makes him one of the world's best writers by swiftly juggling between Etsuko's present, her conversation with her daughter Niki, and her remembrances of the friendship she shared with Sachiko. There are two stories here - Etsuko's past - the time when she was pregnant and the strange relationship that developed with Sachiko, and her daughter Mariko. There is also the story of Etsuko's current loss - her first daughter's Keiko's suicide. The sole narrator here, it should be said, is Etsuko's memory. There are gaps in the story as a consequence. Willful gaps from a skilled writer. A memory is as accurate as the person wishes it to be. Etsuko herself acknowledges this.
“It is possible that my memory of these events will have grown hazy with time, that things did not happen in quite the way they come back to me today”
Who does the reader trust then? If you come to this book, looking for a structured logical "view," then you won't find it. There are too many unanswered questions that left me a bit puzzled. But then, I realized later that is part of Ishiguro's art. The puzzlement betrayed my lack of understanding as a reader, not his lack of awareness as a writer. I was wondering what was Mariko's role? Tortured by the memory of the war, she appears as a strange, wilful child. Did she exist, you question in the end. Or was she just an extension of Etsuko's memory? A way of assuaging her guilt when it comes to Keiko's suicide? It's not just a personal narrative - Nagasaki was where Ishiguro was born, and it is evident that the social development of a deeply scarred Japan troubles him. Is looking ahead and forgetting the past the only way? Is that the reason the memories here seem so faded, so pale? Questions, questions and many more questions. This is not Ishiguro's best work, but it makes you think. And at just under 200 pages, there is a lot in it to think about.
Verdict: The first from a master writer, deserves to be read just for that alone.