A Pale View of Hills (Part I)

A tense, mysterious novel set in an “imaginary” post-war Japan.

[Content warning: The novel, and this review, discuss suicide, domestic abuse, death of children and PTSD.]

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I first read A Pale View of Hills when I had just begun to fall in love with Japan and its culture and was eager to read anything “Japanese” that I could get my hands on. There was a very much smaller selection available even in large bookshops in those days, and online retail was very much in its infancy.

Kazuo Ishiguro (Nobel Prize in Literature, 2017) is British rather than Japanese. He was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and moved to the UK at the age of five, returning to Japan for the first time in 1989, but he was brought up in a Japanese-speaking home. I no longer remember to what extent I understood this when I first read A Pale View of Hills, and whether I expected it to give me some insight into Japanese perspectives on things. I do, however, remember quoting the phrase “a pale view of hills” to a Japanese friend to describe a view we were looking at, and being surprised that the words meant nothing to him. I had assumed that the author would be well known, and the phrase familiar either from the book title or because it was a quotation from a Japanese work that Ishiguro had appropriated for his book. None of this appeared to be the case, although I note that Ishiguro has this year (2018) been awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, a Japanese honour, suggesting that his work may now be better known in Japan than it was when I first came to be interested in it.

I have decided to structure this article in two parts. In this one, I will discuss some thoughts that arose after reading to just after half-way through the book, and in the second part I will discuss possible interpretations.

The novel starts strongly, with a Japanese narrator, Etsuko, considering her life in the UK. We learn within a page and a half that her younger daughter, Niki, is half-Japanese and presumably half-British and that her elder daughter, Keiko, who was fully Japanese, has recently killed herself. It is also clear that the relationship between the three women is, or was, strained. The observations on British perceptions of Japan and the Japanese are rather biting: Niki’s father thought her name “had some vague echo of the East about it” – a reflection of the Western tendency to treat East Asia as some homogeneous whole rather than pay any attention to the differences between countries – and Etsuko states that “[t]he English are fond of the idea that our race has an instinct for suicide”.

There are two timeframes in Etsuko’s narration: the (presumably) approximately contemporary UK – the novel was written in 1982 – and post-war Nagasaki, some time between 1950 and 1953 since it is mentioned that “there was fighting in Korea“. It is interesting that, despite the cataclysmic events that occurred in Nagasaki and Japan as a whole not long before, the author chooses to focus on what appear to be small-scale, domestic concerns, with only relatively oblique references to the war and its aftermath.

By half-way through the book – which is divided into two parts, although there is no obvious shift in timeframe, viewpoint or anything else between them – there is enough tension to run a small power station. As mentioned above, I have read A Pale View of Hills before, but cannot remember how it ends. Based on very vague memories of this and of An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day, both read many years ago – I also started Never Let Me Go more recently but stopped reading partway through when the implied body horror became too much – it seems that Ishiguro is not interested in neat resolutions. I am already alert to the possibility that the book will end with nothing fully resolved. The tension comes from a succession of apparently trivial events – which, if any, will turn out to be important?

None of the characters is especially sympathetic. Etsuko gains a certain amount of implied sympathy by virtue of being the first-person narrator – although it could well be that Ishiguro is meaning to subvert this in some way – and because she is a put-upon housewife whose husband, Jiro, seems to have the temperament, as well as the coordination, of a petulant three-year-old. (At one point he, frustrated, attempts to upend a chessboard. He fails and instead upends a pot of tea, and of course Etsuko is the one who has to clear up the mess.) Etsuko is clearly concealing a great deal at this stage in the book; there has been no mention, so far, of how she went from living in Japan and married to Jiro, to being in the UK and the widow of a non-Japanese, presumably British, husband called Sheringham, and how this may have affected Keiko.

One of the more pleasant-seeming characters, so far as his “on-screen” interaction with Etsuko goes, is Jiro’s father, Ogata-san. He and Etsuko banter in a friendly way whenever they appear. However, it is implied that Ogata had sympathies with the old, militaristic regime. Does this mean that he is some kind of “villain”, albeit a charming one? A potentially disturbing aspect of his character is his seeming obsession with the “disloyalty” of Jiro’s schoolfriend, Shigeo Matsuda, in writing a pro-communist article criticising the education system, and Ogata’s part in it, before the war. Ogata wishes Jiro to formally dissociate himself from Matsuda, but it appears that the friendship between the two men has in any case petered out, with Jiro showing very little interest in Matsuda.

The main characters to feature in the story, beside Etsuko and her family, are Sachiko, a woman of indeterminate age, and her daughter Mariko. Sachiko moves into an old cottage across some waste ground from the block of flats in which Etsuko lives. She is shown repeatedly justifying her own actions or seeking justification from others (mostly Etsuko) with statements such as “I’m a mother, and my daughter’s interests come first”, while leaving her daughter alone at home for hours at a time and failing to send her to school. Sachiko also insists that she is from a good family. She has an American “friend” with whom she is supposed to be leaving for the USA, but when he abandons her and this plan, she appears unfazed by this: “I was expecting it”. Another woman appears to be lurking on the periphery of the Sachiko/Mariko household. It is unclear whether this woman is a figment of Mariko’s imagination. Sachiko explains that Mariko is traumatised by having seen a woman drowning her own child in Tokyo; this woman later killed herself. On one occasion, Sachiko appears to be disturbed by seeing another woman. Is Mariko really Sachiko’s daughter, or did she steal her from someone else, perhaps in the chaotic aftermath of war? She admits to having stolen a teaset, which admittedly is less of a big deal than stealing a child…

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Modern Nagasaki. The city probably bears very little resemblance to how it looked in the immediate post-war period, but this photograph shows how it is surrounded by hills.

Mariko is portrayed as a disturbed and distinctly creepy child, particularly in an incident with a spider.  She disappears from home so many times that it feels almost like “crying wolf”; if something unpleasant does end up happening to her, the emotional impact of this will be dissipated by this repetition, as well as by the unsympathetic portrayal of Mariko. She has suffered trauma (according to her mother, who may be lying) and therefore should attract the reader’s sympathy, but the author does not appear to make any attempt to make the character likeable or appealing; instead, she has a strongly alienating effect. (The same can be said of Sachiko; Etsuko refers to her as a “friend”, but at no point are we given any indication of why Etsuko may have been attracted to her, and the relationship between the two women seems more like an acquaintance than a genuine friendship.) The noodle shop owner, Mrs Fujiwara, is one of the few characters, apart from Ogata, who show any charm or warmth.

A disturbing aspect of the book – is there any aspect of the book that isn’t disturbing? – is the number of casual references to abusive domestic situations, including an incident in which a colleague of Jiro’s mentions beating his wife with a golf-club for voting in a different way from him. Jiro is, at best, dismissive and inconsiderate, and at worst, verbally abusive to Etsuko, while Sachiko relates that her dead husband forbade her from studying English and made her throw away her English books. Sachiko’s American friend, Frank, is not shown as abusive, but his behaviour indicates that he values Sachiko very little. It seems that Sachiko is not expecting any better treatment than this. If this were not enough to create a tense atmosphere, there is a brief reference to a spate of child murders. I do not know whether this was a genuine incident or invented for the purposes of the story.

It is strongly implied that Sachiko is at least to some extent delusional, but Etsuko is also a mysterious and possibly unreliable narrator. The only “facts” that appear uncontrovertible in the framework of the narrative are that in the Nagasaki timeframe, she was in Japan and had a relationship with a Japanese man that produced Keiko, and that in the contemporary timeframe, she is in the UK and has a child from a marriage to Sheringham, who is now dead. The reader is led to assume that Keiko is the child with whom she is pregnant within the Nagasaki timeframe of the story and Jiro is the father. Clearly the first marriage must have ended in either the death of Jiro or divorce, but how this came to happen is not explained by the halfway stage of the book.  Etsuko also relates in her reminiscences that she was in a relationship with another man who was killed in the war and that she was taken in by Ogata. Her decision to marry Jiro was presumably based on economic considerations or a lack of any viable alternative, if he is indeed as devoid of charm as he appears to be in her recollections. (It could, of course, be that she is attempting to justify leaving him by painting him as boorish and sulky.)

All in all, there seem to be many spoilt children in this story, most of whom are well over the age of eighteen. The characters sulk when thwarted, obsessively insist on their own way and repeatedly seek to justify their actions. Some of the dialogue, with its repetitious phrases, sounds as if it comes from the playground. The confrontation between Mariko and a boy of a similar age called Akira, which takes place on one of the “hills” of the title, and in which both children are rude and unpleasant, appears to have no implications for the plot development, but it is perhaps included to serve as a symbol of the childish petulance that the adult characters are displaying. We must, however, remember that these characters have all lived through severe trauma and perhaps some of their behaviour may be explained in terms of PTSD, which can have symptoms including flashbacks, avoidance, detachment, difficulty relating to others and angry outbursts. According to the Wikipedia article on PTSD, the condition came to be recognised in ex-service personnel in the 1970s and formalised in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in 1980, only two years before this novel was published. I would be interested to know how much Ishiguro knew about PTSD and whether his characterisation was a conscious attempt to portray people suffering from this condition. In the few more modern works I have seen that feature PTSD sufferers, they seem to be characterised in a way that allows us to empathise with them, even if the plot requires that their condition lead to some kind of antisocial behaviour.

Ishiguro admits, in this dialogue with Oe Kenzaburo, that the Japan he writes about in this and An Artist of the Floating World is an “imaginary Japan” built up from what his parents taught him about it rather than from his own experience. Some of the dialogue in A Pale View of Hills does borrow strongly  from Japanese usage, for example, the way Etsuko uses “Father” as a second-person pronoun instead of “you”. (I would be interested to know how comprehensible this would be to an audience unfamiliar with Japanese). In other places, the dialogue seems to be strongly Anglicised; Etsuko and Sachiko use their first names to one another, whereas Japanese ladies of that era, in a relatively non-intimate friendship such as theirs, would be more likely to call each other by surname+san. Clearly, a compromise has to be struck between reminding the readers that they are in a Japanese setting and comprehensibility. There is little detailed description of Nagasaki, but I was nonetheless surprised to learn that Ishiguro had not set foot in the city since the age of five when he wrote this book, since he does succeed in conveying a convincing impression of Nagasaki in summer.

The language used is light, easy to read and very domestic. Ishiguro seems uninterested in linguistic flourishes and any hint of anything even remotely resembling “purple prose”. As a result, there are no phrases that remain in my mind even a few hours after reading this, but instead an uneasy, strained atmosphere, images of dark nights and wan, washed-out days and the memory of horrific events referred to in asides.

The impressive aspects of this novel so far include the way in which Ishiguro creates tension with a succession of possibly sinister, possibly innocuous and apparently trivial domestic incidents and that he does this with a straightforward style that, together with the tension, encourages the reader to persist despite the lack of engaging characters. In addition, I appreciated the way in which the male author was able to imagine himself into the mind of the female protagonist and portray both the boredom of having little of any interest to do and the experience of being treated as a lesser being who waits on the men of the family and sits silently while her husband’s friend discusses perpetrating an act of violence on his wife. Is this a feminist novel? Perhaps that would be too strong a statement, but Ishiguro seems to be at his most passionate – bearing in mind that his passion is always very understated – when he intimates at the plight of his female characters at the hands of men in the Nagasaki sections of the book.

Part II of this article discusses the resolution… if indeed there is one!

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