Never Let Me Go

The cover of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

For years I resisted reading anything by Kazuo Ishiguro. I absolutely believed people when they told me about his greatness and his 2017 Nobel Prize caught my attention since that is one of the categories I track in my reading, but but the descriptions for his novels created an impenetrable field around them. An English butler during the fading days of the aristocracy, complete with repressed feelings? Pass. A novel set in a rural English boarding school? No thanks.

At the same time, Ishiguro seemed to me the sort of author whose books I shouldn’t reject out of hand just because I have had bad experiences with books with superficial similarities. A conversation on a podcast about his latest novel, Klara and the Sun, finally pushed me over the edge, leading me to read his 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go.

My initial thought about Ishiguro proved both absolutely correct and entirely wrong.

From the outside, Hailsham looks like any other exclusive English boarding school. The students play sports and complete art projects, complain about the teachers, and form little cliques. The difference is that the students at Hailsham are part of a program that produces walking organ donors.

Kathy H. is a Hailsham graduate. After eleven years of service as a carer, tending to the donors, she is reunited with her friends from school, Ruth and Tommy who have both entered their donor phase. Seeing her friends again unearths memories in Kathy: her friendship with Ruth, Ruth’s relationship with Tommy, and the rivalry the two girls felt over the boy.

Ishiguro is adept at spinning out small tendernesses and deep barbs that breathe life into these relationships and at times make them hard to read. Had the relationships primarily been what Never Let Me Go was about, my preconception about the novel would have proven accurate: a sensitive and careful novel that just wasn’t for me. However, Kathy’s recounting to of the events transform the story into a low-key, dystopian horror, which is very much my type of novel.

As Kathy H. explains her relationships with Ruth and Tommy, she explains the context in which she knew them. Hailsham literally is a world unto itself. They forge all of their human relationships at school because they don’t have families beyond the walls and are incapable of creating families of their own. The origin of the students remains a mystery, but they are, ostensibly, bred for the sole purpose of being donors (and the story gets a good deal darker if one imagines a different background than what we are told). Hailsham itself is simply a social experiment designed to evaluate whether there is value in educating the donors, whether by making them better carers or by humanizing an institution that the powers-that-be find mildly off-putting. After all, donors, people marked for inevitable death, walk among the people who might one day receive their organs.

The brilliance of Never Let Me Go comes in how Ishiguro juxtaposes the familiar complications of childhood friendships with the ever-present doom of the program. That is, these characters do not have the freedom to choose their futures. From the first page, Kathy H. explains that she has been at her job as a carer for an unusually long time before becoming a donor. They are literally and physically a second class of citizen, disposable for the convenience of others. And yet, in the face of the inevitable, they scrape out a human existence.

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The demands of the semester (the first semester at a new job) and some writing obligations have led to a notable silence in this space about the books I have reading. When given the choice between writing and reading, I almost always choose reading. The result is a list of books I haven’t gotten around to writing about: S.A. Chakraborty’s The Kingdom of Copper (I might write about it after I finish the series), Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies (not as good as The Lies of Locke Lamora), William Germano’s On Revision (quite good), Téa Obreht’s The Tigers Wife (solid magical realism) and Drew Magary’s The Night the Lights Went Out (a memoir about learning to live with an illness). I might write about some of those, but the two recent reads I do hope to write about are Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island and Tana French’s The Secret Place.

The Republic of Wine – Mo Yan

Experienced detective Ding Gou’er does not really know what to expect when he travels to Liquorland on assignment. He is there to investigate unsavory rumors coming out of this region where, allegedly, the people are feasting on the flesh of children and washing it down with their fabled alcoholic beverages. (Local officials insist that the food is only crafted to look human.) Inspector Ding Gou’er (not much of a drinker, we are told) needs to keep his wits about him, but neither can he dare insult the local officials and so finds himself deeply intoxicated by an abundance of toasts. Worse still, Ding Gou’er quickly learns of the local appetites for flesh in all its guises, sexual, sensual, or gustatory, finding himself in debate with Yu Yishi, a dwarf whose stated goal is sexual conquest of all the regional beauties and in bed with the beautiful wife of a local official. Are the poor of Liquorland bearing children in order to supply the culinary academy with “Meat Boys,” or is that just a story told by a local writer with too much alcohol and an overactive imagination? In either case, the environment of Liquorland has a powerfully deleterious effect on the (formerly) respectable inspector.

The corruption of Ding Gou’er, however, represents only one of the three narrative threads that form The Republic of Wine. The other two threads consist of the ongoing epistolary relationship between the eminent author Mo Yan and his younger contemporary Li Yidou, doctoral candidate of liquor studies at Brewer’s College in Liquorland, and the stories written by the latter author. Most of their correspondence involves Mo Yan’s critique of Li Yidou’s stories and their plans to bring Mo Yan to Liquorland to write the biography of a dwarf Yu Yishi, which Mo Yan can only do after completing his latest novel The Republic of Wine. At no point do you read Mo Yan’s novel because, of course, that is what the entire book is. Each chapter in The Republic of Wine consists of all three narrative elements that create a deep discussion about life in Liquorland (a.k.a. a fictional stand-in for modern China), combined with the hallucinatory sensation of wondering what is “real” and what is just another layer of storytelling.

Mo Yan’s weaving together of these three distinct vantage points of a single story while inserting himself and treating all three as varying shades of textual (as distinct from real) makes The Republic of Wine and impressive novel. The closest comparison I can think of to this novel is Curzio Malaparte’s grimly surreal The Skin, but Mo Yan is much more subtle in his visions. And yet, it is only Mo Yan’s literary technique that may be called subtle since The Republic of Wine is an orgy of sensation. This is no straightforward detective tale or psychological thriller, but a story where the reader is sucked into the sensory world of hallucination where he or she is besieged by a riot of colors, tastes, sounds, and smells that threaten to overpower and it is in this aspect of the novel that I most saw Mo Yan’s critique of modern Chinese consumer culture.

For all that I appreciated The Republic of Wine and understood Mo Yan’s 2012 Nobel Prize, I did not love the book. It might have been all the more powerful for its rawness and inconsistencies, and some of my disorientation was, I am sure, intentional, I sometimes had a hard time following along. This was particularly true when there were allusions or references to Mo Yan’s other books, and I sort of wish I had begun with one of his others. More problematic for me, though, and something that I have had trouble with in other translations of Chinese-language novels, was that I did not particularly love any of the characters and in the absence of a strong plot, I sometimes found myself adrift.

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Next up, I recently finished (and loved!, minor peccadilloes aside) N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I am going to read the other books in that trilogy in short order, I suspect, and I picked up the second from the library yesterday, but I am currently reading a history of the city of Odessa, in part because I have family that lived there before coming to the United States.

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

He could not imagine that the world of the emotions had infiltrated the atmosphere of his home, which he vigilantly strove to keep one of stern purity and immaculate innocence.

Why do you pretend to be pious around your family when you’re a pool of depravity?

Published in Arabic in 1956 and released in English in 1990, Palace Walk is the first book in Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy. The trilogy follows one family in Cairo over the span of decades, but Palace Walk takes place over the course of about a year at the end of World War One.

Palace Walk centers on the household of the merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, which consists of his wife Amina, their daughters Khadija and Aisha, sons Fahmy and Kamal, Yasin, the son of his first wife, and the maid Umm Hanafi. Yasin still lives with the family despite having graduated and obtaining and a job, following in his father’s philandering footsteps but without his restraint. While the two younger boys, the dedicated and Romantic Fahmy and the carefree Kamal still attend school. The women, obedient Amina, homely and intelligent Khadija, and beautiful but vain Aisha, remain secluded within the house. Much of the story is driven by the contradictions within the character of al-Sayyid Ahmad. At home he is a severe, domineering overlord who forbids the women from leaving the walls except for Amina’s infrequent visits to her mother. The family’s rhythms are dictated by the presence of the father, though, and he spends most evenings out with his friends, laughing, singing, drinking, and womanizing.

The children are measured in contrast to their father and, to a lesser extent, mother. For the girls, this is a physical contrast–their eyes and their noses; for the boys, it is a more fundamental comparison–to what extent do their physiques match their father and to what extent did they inherit his appetites. However, at least in his mind, Fahmy and Yasin are fundamentally flawed, taking on aspects of his desires without taste or responsibility. Kamal, the youngest, is the exception to this rule, not because he is without fault, but because he is not yet fully developed and so looks upon the actions of his elders with confusion and wonder.

Palace Walk is a tightly-knit family story, so the bulk of the narrative consists of quiet domestic tension, particularly on the part of the long-suffering Amina, as well as marriage and infidelity. I found these scenes moving for all their quietude, but what elevates Palace Walk into a masterpiece is how Mahfouz sets it across the end of World War One, juxtaposing the family’s agitation for independence from their father with the Egyptian protests in favor of independence from Britain.

News about the strike, acts of sabotage, and the battles had filled him with a hope and admiration, but it was a totally different matter for any of these deeds to be performed by a son of his. His children were meant to be a breed apart, outside the framework of history.

al-Sayyid insists that his authoritarian regime at home is designed to protect his family, but this ambition proves impossible.

Throughout the story Mahfouz does an excellent job of evoking sympathy for women and children even while not making al-Sayyid without redeeming characteristics. Despite the importance of the father, it is clear that Kamal has a particular importance for the story. It is through his eyes that one asks why the girls fall away from the story after they marry. He is untouched by the rancor and violence that surrounds the protests, and being struck by the prominence of his character, I was prompted to look ahead to find out that Kamal is indeed a main character in the second two novels. His innocence, transcending even that of Amina, stands out.

I want to reserve final judgement on Palace Walk until I read the other two books, but this was an excellent start. The story is beautiful and moving, and Mahfouz ratchets up the tension until a shocking conclusion.

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Earlier today I finished reading Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, a magical-realistic murder story set in an unnamed Indonesian town. Next up is Rina Frank’s 2006 novel Every House Needs a Balcony.