The Banality of Evil: A Review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

 

In his newest novel Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day, brilliantly demonstrates some of the more rarely seen powers of speculative fiction. While typical speculative fiction is set in a future often radically different from our present, there is a kind that more subtly imagines what might have been instead of what might be. This choice is itself no guarantor of success, but in Ishiguro’s hands, it is a stunning revelation.

The novel is set in England in the 1990’s. We are introduced to several students at a private school called Hailsham, and follow the details of their lives for awhile before we have it verified for us that these students are clones who have been raised for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs for others. Put this bluntly, the plot is horrifying and the novel sounds like a science fiction thriller. But Never Let Me Go is barely science fiction, and its narrative point of view diffuses this horror in order to highlight something even more horrifying—society’s complicity with evil.

Kathy H., the narrator of the story, is one of the clones. She’s a thirty-one-year-old former student of Hailsham who is now a “carer”—someone who helps the others through their donation programs. But the story she tells has not been designed primarily to provide a dramatic unfolding of the truth of what their lives were created for. Instead, it is a kind of meditative, even nostalgic recollection of her days at Hailsham with her classmates Ruth and Tommy. Her memories involve, therefore, what you might expect from a coming-of-age story: friendship, pettiness, jealousy, love, fear, and self-discovery. She even ends her tale where it had begun—with her being more or less grateful for the opportunities she had at Hailsham, which, we discover, is more humane than the other places where these people have been raised. When one of the donors she is caring for who had not attended Hailsham pleads for her to share her memories of it in order to ease his pain, she tells us that “that was when I first understood, really understood, just how lucky we’d been—Tommy, Ruth, me, all the rest of us.”

It is only very slowly revealed to the readers that this “luck” is akin to that of a person living in a concentration camp who learns that other people at other camps have been put to death by being burned at the stake rather than by the less painful gas chamber. Ishiguro’s main concern is what Kathy cannot see in her situation because it has been made completely normal for her. This novel is, in short, a stunning illustration of what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” The real horror of Never Let Me Go is the power of social conditioning that can make us accept the most inhumane of practices. As we read between the lines, we first learn that the students never question their ultimate place in life or the right of someone else to define it for them. The novel thus also provides a meditation on the logic of class structures, which we expect a British writer to know something about. Second, we watch how language is used to effect the normalization process: organ donors do not die; they “complete,” and the word “clone” is replaced by the word “student.” All of the evil is buried deep beneath a surface kept glassy smooth by social convention, manners, and expectations. It’s chilling. Finally we discover that any hope for any other kind of life has been drained out of the students without them even knowing it. When they do hear a rumor of how they might escape their futures as donors, they pursue it to a dead end, the discovery of which marks the end of their struggle. They simply do not have any idea to fight further. The power of this novel is evinced by the fact that we do not believe that they can fight, either.

Ishiguro’s title is a plea, I think, for us to never let go of a world where evil is given the name of evil, and horror is identified as horror. It’s a goal his novel shares with one of the paragons of speculative fiction—Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. When one of the teachers remembers watching Kathy H. in a moment of human pathos, she says “when I watched you [. . .] I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go.”

 

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