ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.
Loss, memory, regret. Writer Kazuo Ishiguro explores these issues beautifully in all six of his novels. The most famous, "The Remains of the Day," is set in England just before the Second World War. His most recent work, "Never Let Me Go," is set in contemporary England with a disturbing twist. Kazuo Ishiguro spoke to DAY TO DAY's Karen Grigsby Bates for our Wednesday Book Report.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:
Kazuo Ishiguro's newest novel, "Never Let Me Go," begins when the narrator introduces herself.
Mr. KAZUO ISHIGURO: (Reading) `My name is Kathy H. I'm 31 years old, and I've been a carer now for over 11 years.'
BATES: Kathy's very existence is a controversial part of the book. Her mysterious occupation is revealed early on, but if you want to maintain a little frisson when you discover it yourself, Ishiguro has a playful warning.
Mr. ISHIGURO: A spoiler alert. If people don't want to hear this, they can leave the room. But--OK, left the room? All right. So the story's about a group of young children growing up in the English countryside and they gradually start to figure out that they are special, they're different. And they're special, they're different because they are cloned children. And they gradually start to figure out what their purpose in life is; they've been cloned so that they can donate their organs.
BATES: To produce the healthiest possible organs for donation, the children of Hailshom, an exclusive boarding school deep in the English countryside, are carefully protected and lovingly nurtured by their teachers and administrators. Yet despite their obvious fondness for the students, we'll discover that the teachers, while proud of the job they've been entrusted to do, are also tremendously uncomfortable with their charges' human appearance and inhuman status. Ishiguro says he remembers this conflict between doing the right thing but not much enjoying it from a job he had early on.
Mr. ISHIGURO: I've worked with homeless people in the past and I've noticed that same kind of tension, that feeling at a social or political level that you want to help homeless people, knowing in your head you shouldn't be repelled by them, either physically or in terms of their personalities. But actually, the day-to-day reality of dealing with these people is actually very difficult.
BATES: That devotion to duty, often at the price of one's personal happiness, suffuses many of Ishiguro's works. In "Never Let Me Go," the cloned children, for instance, accept without argument why they were made and for whom. Their normal life span will be shortened to half that of humans. Organs are harvested from them one by one until they weaken and die or in the book's euphemism, `complete.' But they don't question or rebel against their fate. Ishiguro says their circumstances seem normal to them.
Mr. ISHIGURO: But they live in this enclosed world. They live just amongst others like them. So that's the only life they know and, to them, you know, that's the natural life span. And far from feeling that they should rebel or run away, they feel a certain sense of duty to do these things well.
BATES: Duty is almost a character in Ishiguro's most famous novel, "The Remains of the Day." The tale of Stevens, a self-effacing butler in an English great house just before World War II, won universal critical acclaim and was made into a popular movie. In this scene, Stevens, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, has just been informed by his colleague, Ms. Kenton, played by Emma Thompson, that his elderly father, who trained him in household service, has died in the servant's quarters upstairs. Tragic and inconvenient as Stevens' employer is hosting a historic gathering downstairs and expects Stevens to make sure all runs smoothly.
(Soundbite of "The Remains of the Day")
Ms. EMMA THOMPSON: (As Ms. Kenton) Come up and see him.
Sir ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Stevens) But I'm very busy at the moment, Ms. Kenton. In a little while, perhaps.
Ms. THOMPSON: In that case, will you permit me to close his eyes?
Sir ANTHONY: I would be most grateful, Ms. Kenton. Thank you. Thank you.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Sir ANTHONY: Oh, Ms. Kenton?
Ms. THOMPSON: Yes?
Sir ANTHONY: My father would wish me to carry on with my work. I can't let him down.
BATES: Both "The Remains of the Day" and "Never Let Me Go" are saturated in a kind of wistful fondness for a time in life that has passed and won't return: decency rather than self-indulgence; patriotism, not nationalism; and order that is universally understood. Kazuo Ishiguro.
Mr. ISHIGURO: It's almost like that kind of nostalgia is to the feelings, to the emotions, what idealism is to the intellect. It's a way of holding in your memory a picture of a better world than the one we find ourselves in.
BATES: Of course, the world portrayed in "Never Let Me Go" is more complicated than the narrator's initial perspective would suggest. But the novel strongly conveys the belief that time moves very quickly, whether we're humans or the book's clones.
Mr. ISHIGURO: I was trying to celebrate the kind of the small decencies of human beings set against this dark background that's in all our lives; it's actually we all live with a countdown going on.
BATES: Kazuo Ishiguro says many people read "Never Let Me Go" as straight science fiction, and that's fine with him. But when he reads before an audience, there's another reaction that pleases him more.
Mr. ISHIGURO: People who said, `This was a very sad novel, but there was also something quite affirming in it because the characters are so decent.' That response is really closest to what I was trying to get at. You know, the fact is, yes, we will all fade away and die, but people can find the energy to create, you know, little pockets of happiness and decency while we're here.
BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.
CHADWICK: And you can hear Kazuo Ishiguro read excerpts from "Never Let Me Go" at our Web site, npr.org.