Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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The Remains of the Day – By Kazuo Ishiguro — A Book Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 10, 2008

One of the qualities of a good book, in my opinion, is its ability to sustain its appeal to emotions of readers across generations. I am always in a dilemma whether or not to read a book I liked the second time. For there is a large inventory of interesting and great stuff out there on the shelf waiting for one, that a re-read appears an indulgence in time which one can ill afford. But on the other hand some of the first reads have been so wonderful an experience that mind keeps dragging one to revisit the same again. One such book where I had overcome this dilemma of re-reading has been Kazuo Ishiguro’sThe Remains of the Day’. I read the book second time in the recent past after a gap of nearly two years and found its appeal undiminished

‘The Remains of the Day’ at its core is a book of profound reminiscence of his past by an aging butler Stevens  while on a journey that he undertakes between Oxfordshire to Cornwall in England. The journey is essential for it not only stimulates the reminiscence but also becomes a necessary act as it offers Stevens a chance to pick up and reknit the splayed threads of his life. The journey has a potential to build a bridge between his long gone and irredemable past and a future that can be vastly hopeful. In a sense the journey  delivers Stevens at the doorsteps of some sort of redemption in worldly terms. The tragedy of Stevens is that having arrived at that doorstep he squanders it again. My own feeling is that we all don the role of Stevens in our own lives at some time or the other. And it is this tragedy that is common to all of us the most appealing aspect of this book.

Ishiguro’s depiction of the journey into the past is carefully constructed. The events of the past are narrated with utmost ease and mostly in first person by Stevens who has fixed notions about upholding the “dignity” and “greatness” of his profession and a passion so engulfing that he is willing to put on hold his own feelings, emotions and life aside for the sake of these self cherished values. Stevens own vision of a ‘Great Butler’ is not limited to execution of his duties flawlessly but offering his services to perfection to those masters who in his mind distinguish themselves from others in making significant contributions to the course of events that help humanity at large. Consider Stevens view of his work:…..”But what I am saying is that it is these sorts of instances which over time come to symbolise an irrefutable fact; namely that one has had the privilege of practising one’s professions at the very “fulcrum” of “great affairs” 

So what are these “great affairs” and “fulcrum” that Stevens is referring to? To understand the “great affairs” which Stevens is referring to one needs to be able picturise Europe at the end of World War 1 and the bickerings of the aggrieved parties (America, Britain, Germany, France and Italy) around the Treaty of Versailles. France has a significant and justified grievance and continues to insist on extracting stiff penalties and reparations from Germany. Britian is trying to mediate. America is trying to act as a careful observer and protecting its own interests. The important discussions which dictate the course of Europe get carried out at the “fulcrum” — which is the house of Lord Darlington. It is for this impressive and distinguished house that Steven is the long term and trusted butler and Lord Darlington is his master.

Butlering is a profession like any other but for Stevens it is his only identity and he carries a notion that perfection in his job at Darlington house is an indirect way in which he is also contributing to the great affairs that are shaping the history of Europe. This notion reduces Stevens to a emotion hiding automaton of sorts spurning the advances of Miss Kenton who likes him and refusal to believe and acknowledge the mistakes/naivete of his master. The cultivated indifference of Stevens gradually separates him from Miss Kenton who ends up in an unhappy but reconciled marriage. Things deteriorate quite rapidly for Lord Darlington and he ends up as pawn in the hands of Hitler and riled by his own countrymen. He dies a completely disillusioned and broken man and the estate gets sold to a wealthy American business man who views his estate as an acquisition of a precious relic of English culture. His views of his acquisition are succinctly expressed when he says: “I mean to say, Stevens, this is a genuine grand old English house, isn’t it? That’s what I paid for. And you are a genuine old fashioned English butler, not just some waiter just pretending to be one. You are the real thing aren’t you? That’s what I wanted, isn’t that what I have?”  Despite this Stevens persists in the notion of his work and this makes him do strange things like switching his loyalties from Lord Darlington to Mr.Farraday (his current master) while stifling his real feelings for his previous master. At one point Stevens confesses to a doctor who helps him with fuel for his stalled car by saying    “Lord Darlington was not a bad man . He was not a bad man at all….. his lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim. You see I trusted. I trusted in his Lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I cant even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?”

He meets many ordinary people on his way who gradually disabuse of certain views that Stevens had developed on account of his long association with the proceedings at Darlington Hall. He has a lingering hope of reclaiming Miss Kenton (now Mrs.Benn) but that does not happen. It gradually dawns on Stevens that ….the clock cannot be turned back….. and that it is too late

All in all ‘The Remains of the Day’, is a brilliantly plaintive book and the sadness develops gradually as you co-passenger Stevens through his journey in England and his own recollection of past. A very unusual plot, extremely suggestive and controlled conversation set against a momentous backdrop of an uncertain, explosive and anxiety ridden Europe that make it a modern day classic. It is a book I would not mind reading one more time in the future and I am certain that in this case I will never be troubled by the typical dilemmas that I associate with investing time and energy in a re-read

( A deserving winner of Booker Prize in 1989)


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