Kazuo Ishiguro on Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable narrators. A term describing a certain literary technique. If you’re an English Literature student, you hear it thrown around all the time.

What is it? According to Wikipedia: ‘an unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction.‘ It often leaves readers wondering ‘how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.’

I’m not discrediting it. The concept makes sense and it’s an apt explanation.

Stevens in The Remains of the Day (Ishiguro) is an unreliable narrator. So is Kathy H. in Never Let Me Go (Ishiguro). We mustn’t forget Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children (Rushdie) too. Fight Club (Palahniuk). American Psycho (Ellis). Time’s Arrow (Amis). Gone Girl (Flynn). Even films such as The Usual Suspects and A Beautiful Mind.

Kazuo-Ishiguro-010

© Matt Carr/Getty Images

Last month, Kazuo Ishiguro did a live webchat interview on The Guardian website in promotion of his upcoming novel, The Buried Giant. One commenter asked him a question about unreliable narrators:

BabyH: Many of your books depend on a self-deluding or otherwise unreliable narrator. What is it particularly that interests you in this device?

And his answer just blew me away. Or rather, made me realise just how stuck I was in the academic mindset (emphasis mine).

There are a few questions in this chat about unreliable narrators, and so this is in answer to some of the others as well. When I started out, I never really thought specifically about ‘the unreliable narrator’. In fact, that term wasn’t thrown around back then nearly as much as it is now. I just wrote my narrators up in the way I felt was authentic – the way I felt most people would go about telling a story about themselves. That’s to say, any of us, when asked to give an account of ourselves over any important period of our lives, would tend to be ‘unreliable’. That’s just human nature. We tend to be ‘unreliable’ even to ourselves – maybe especially to ourselves. I didn’t think of it as a literary technique. That’s kind of how I think of my narrative voices now, today. I wouldn’t want my narrators to be any more unreliable than the average person would be in a similar context.

Profound, insightful and oh so true. This is why I love Ishiguro, because he is so down to earth and genuine, humble and sensitive, and such a fine, talented author.

Though I doubt my examiners would be pleased if I wrote that as an answer in my exams…

(The entire interview is fascinating. I recommend reading the whole thing. He briefly talks about writing Japanese dialogue in English, something I personally struggle with. He says:

[I]n my early books, I was obliged to create the impression that the characters (even the narrator, in my second book) was speaking not in English, but in Japanese. But the book was somehow reaching the reader in English. So I had to create a kind of subtitles effect. I couldn’t let loose with Japanese people going ‘cor blimey’ or ‘what ho’. So I had to invent a kind of careful, ‘foreign’ language.

I would have loved for him to elaborate more on this particular topic, but unfortunately he ran out of time before I could ask my question. But I do have his first 2 novels set in Japan sitting on my desk waiting to be read. I’m excited to see what secrets and techniques I can glean from them!)

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5 thoughts on “Kazuo Ishiguro on Unreliable Narrators

  1. I love Ishiguro. It’s so true what he said about everybody having selective memories. Sometimes even among siblings (personal experience speaking here), we value different memories. I’m also interested in how authors write dialogue and make it foreign-sounding. Do they change the word structure, vocabulary, or flow of the speech?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting post, Justin. In the last 35 years or so, literary critical approaches have been applied to the Bible, raising the question of unreliable narrators in stories that have an extra thick dose of irony or satire. Anyway, I was struck by Ishiguro’s candid acknowledgement of our propensity to lie to ourselves and narrate our own life events in deceptive ways. Lots of food for thought there!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Paul. In my first year of uni, I thoroughly enjoyed looking at the Bible from a literary point of view—it made me appreciate it even more. The intertextuality throughout, as well as the parallels between the four gospels were particularly intriguing. I haven’t heard much about unreliable narrators in the Bible—I’d love to hear more about that!

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    • Hi Jennifer, thanks for the comment. The whole ‘writing non-English dialogue in English’ issue is something I’ve racked my brain about for the past few months. I’ve skimmed through translated versions of Murakami and seen English idioms used. I understand the accessibility, but I feel it compromises the original language too much. On the other hand, I’ve read books that just utilise vocabulary from the original language, sticking foreign words in the middle of English sentences. What have you noticed/observed, whether from other works or your own writing experiences?

      I’ll be writing a post soon regarding this whole issue, so keep an eye out for it!

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      • Sorry, I never responded to this! I don’t mind the occasional foreign word. Sometimes I like it when people use idioms from a different language but translate it into English. I guess changing the sentence structure or using incorrect tenses helps it feel foreign as well.

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