I hoped that the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare would win this year’s
Nobel Prize in Literature—but, then, I hope that every year. Kazuo
Ishiguro’s en-Nobelment is a surprise; I wonder how many readers had
thought of him as a likely contender. (A graduate of the University of
East Anglia’s creative-writing school, where he was a student of Angela
Carter, he may well be the first product of a creative-writing course
to win the Nobel.) On reflection, however, you can see how his work
shares similarities with another British laureate, William Golding: both
writers have been drawn to allegory, and to historical fiction and
fantastical exploration (Ishiguro’s most recent novel, “The Buried Giant,” is
set in sixth- or seventh-century Britain; Golding’s “The Inheritors” is
about a Neanderthal family); and both writers have practiced a kind of
brilliantly imperturbable purity—they have supremely done their own kind
of thing, calmly undeterred by literary fashion, the demands of the
market, or the intermittent incomprehension of critics.

I’ve been one of those critics. I greatly admired Ishiguro’s early
novels, such as “An Artist of the Floating World,” from 1986, and “The
Remains of the Day,” from 1989 (the latter seems an almost perfect
book). But “The Unconsoled” (1995), narrated by a concert pianist and
set in an unnamed Central European city, too closely inhabited the
miasmic, drifting, dreamlike state it sought to evoke. I thought that
“The Buried Giant”(2015)—apparently admired by at least one member of
the Nobel committee—was an allegory at once too literal and too vague.
(Ancient Britain has been plunged into a nationwide historical amnesia
nicknamed “the mist,” which turns out to be the breath of Querig, a
tyrannical she-dragon that must be slaughtered. Enough said.)

But surely “Never Let Me Go” (2005), is one of the central novels of our
age, in part because Ishiguro perfectly mixes realism and dystopian
fantasy to produce an allegory of deep and lingering power.

“Never Let Me Go” is set in a boarding school called Hailsham, and
flatly narrated, in a style of almost punitive blandness, by a young
woman named Kathy. Hailsham seems banally similar to any British school
of its ilk, and it’s only very gradually that we begin to discern the
enormous differences: it is in fact a school for cloned children, whose
organs are being harvested for ordinary, luckier, non-cloned British
citizens. The cloned children will eventually be “called up,” and forced
to donate a kidney or a lung. By the fourth “donation,” sometime in
their early twenties, they will “complete”; they will die, having served
their function.

The blandness of the novel’s narration, though initially frustrating, is
a large part of the book’s success. The somewhat excruciating style
works against the fantasy of the novel’s premise; it deglamorizes the
element of science fiction. Like Kafka’s great novel “The Castle,” the
story is so caught up in its own humdrum obstacles and frustrations, its
characters so trapped in the very mill of the banal, that it doesn’t
really resemble allegory. And Kathy’s mundane recitation of the facts
also enacts a hideously meek (and familiarly English!) resignation: this
is the way it is, there’s no point in trying to change the terms of the
game or jump the queue.

“Never Let Me Go” is a beautiful and terrifying book because it works so
well at different levels: it is a kind of parody of English
boarding-school books; it is a critique of certain emergent medical
technologies; and, above all, it is a suggestive allegory of how all of
us live. For it is our similarity to, not our difference from, the
cloned kids of Hailsham that is finally shocking. They bicker and fight,
dream and create, fall in love and have sex, like schoolkids everywhere.
But because we know that they will soon be dead, their lives seem, to
us, like cruel parodies of normal, healthy, free existence. Yet can’t
our own lives also be seen as parodies of real freedom? Just because we
have the promise of living to eighty rather than twenty, why do our
lives take on a metaphysical significance that is automatically denied
to the abbreviated existences of the cloned teen-agers? Our lives will
also, one day, “complete.” The cloned kids are living out their short
death sentences; surely our own lives are merely longer death sentences?
“Never Let Me Go” looks at our life span on this earth, and comes to the
same bleak conclusion as Pascal once did (except, of course, that Pascal
believed in God as our necessary salvation from this bleakness).
“Imagine a number of men in chains,” the French philosopher wrote, “all
condemned to death, some of whom are executed daily in sight of the
rest; then those who are left see their own fate in that of their
fellows, and, regarding each other with sorrow and without hope, wait
till their turn comes: this is a picture of man’s condition.”