I just finished reading A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro. As usual with his work, the book has stayed with me for over a day now.
There will be spoilers in this review.
Etsuko is a Japanese woman, living in rural England in the 1970s. She left her first husband, a traditional Japanese ‘company man’. Her second, English husband has died, and her eldest daughter Keiko has committed suicide. Her younger daughter Niki visits, and their conversation triggers a series of dreams and memories. She recalls a strange friendship she had with another woman called Sachiko in post-war Japan. Based in the still rebuilding city of Nagasaki, sweltering and devastated by the atomic bomb.
Etsuko and Sachiko
My interpretation is that Etsuko is Sachiko, and is projecting her failures as a mother onto this fictional woman. Early on, the narrator muddles the two characters. She declares that she ‘never meant to be unfriendly’ when discussing neighbourhood gossip about Sachiko.
Sachiko’s abrupt loss of status could be Etsuko’s experience when she left her first husband. The neat, newly built flat they have together is contrasted with the dilapidated, yet traditional hut by the river. The hut is the home of the cold, modern, sneering Sachiko, who lives with her disturbed daughter, Mariko.
Etsuko characterises herself as a dutiful, submissive, traditional woman with a calm temperament. Why would such a person associate with Sachiko? The woman is rude and condescending. She looks down on the kind widow who offers her a job, and is contemptuous towards her noodle shop.
Her own plan is to seduce an indifferent and elusive American serviceman called Frank. Yet she is derisive of Mrs.Fujiwara, a post war woman who has faced reality – and her own reduction in status – and built her own business.
Sachiko is in a relationship with an American serviceman called Frank. It’s a loose parallel to the Madam Butterfly legend. He symbolises the allure of the West and a ticket back to prosperity for Sachiko. However he is unfaithful, inconstant and toys with her affections.
His promises of taking them to America are patently false, and she flits between acknowledging that and buying into the fantasy of an exciting new life of glitz and prosperity. Sachiko has child-like, unrealistic dreams of being a film star.
The novel closes with Sachiko preparing to move to Kobe to wait for Frank to send them money to go to America. She chooses this fantasy, which even she acknowledges will likely never happen, instead of a safer, if tedious option. Essentially she has a cousin and uncle who are wealthy and more than willing to take them both in. They’d be safe and secure. Mariko would have tutors and even be able to bring her kittens.
Etsuko and Mariko
Mariko is an obvious stand in / double of Keiko.
From the start, Mariko is terrified of Etsuko; a strange reaction if the narrator’s self characterisation was true. The child also frequently refers to a pale woman who wants to ‘take her across the river’ – a metaphor for both death and the suggested emigration abroad. During the war, Mariko’s psychological problems began when she saw a woman drown her own baby.
This is mirrored in a harrowing scene where Sachiko brutally – and unnecessarily – takes her daughter’s kittens and drowns them in front of her. It is implied that she also drowned a previous family cat, because it was inconvenient. Mariko is traumatised and frightened; if her mother would drown one small, inconvenient creature, why not another?
It is clear that Etsuko blames herself for her daughter’s suicide. If she was Sachiko then her self blame is somewhat warranted.
The rope motif is repeated throughout the novel. Keiko killed herself by hanging. A little girl in Nagasaki was murdered and hung from a tree. In contemporary England, Etsuko sees a child on a swing, an image that morphs in her dreams into a child hanging.
The first time Etsuko speaks to Mariko / Keiko by the river, she has a piece of rope caught on her sandals. The second time, she is holding the rope, and the little girl mentions it several times, and clearly believes the woman means to harm her. Mariko is also sitting on a bridge; a potent symbol of suicidal intent.
This is likely a manifestation of Etsuko’s guilt at forcing Keiko to emigrate. She admits she knew Keiko would be unhappy in England, but made her go anyway. Some have suggested that she contemplated killing her daughter at that point. I think it’s more likely that Etsuko feels she fashioned the noose for her daughter’s neck.
Symbolism of Names
The names in A Pale View of Hills are extremely significant.
- ‘Keiko’ means ‘lucky child’ – the real Keiko was anything but.
- Etsuko means ‘joy child’ – neither the past or contemporary Etsuko are joyful.
- Sashiko means ‘happiness’ – a key factor is that the character puts her happiness before all else. She leaves Mariko alone constantly, even when a child murderer was roaming Nagasaki.
- Frank means ‘free’ – he represents the corrupt, unrealistic freedom Sachiko is craving at the expense of all else. Even, eventually, her daughter’s life.
- Mariko means ‘the truth’ or ‘ten thousand miles’.
The last name is the most important. Ten thousand miles can be reference to the distance in emigration, or the hazy quality of memory. But if ‘Mariko’ means ‘Truth’ then it re-colours the book into a kind of horror story, where Etsuko has attempted to absolve herself of her past behaviour through projection and splitting.
The Sachiko / Etsuko character displays many narcissistic traits.
Sachiko considers herself far too good to work in a noodle shop, despite living in a damp, dilapidated shack. She also has unrealistic, grandiose fantasies of becoming a film star in America. She weaves elaborate tales about her future, fabulous life with Frank in America, only occasionally admitting that it probably won’t happen. (The sequence where she is packing is disturbingly reminiscent of the penultimate scenes in A Streetcar Named Desire).
She is utterly lacking in empathy; she ignores her daughter’s needs and neglects her horribly. She insists her daughter comes first, when she obviously does not. This tactic of saying rather than doing is a common narcissistic personality trait.
It is related to a narcissist’s inability to accept responsibility for their own actions – hence the framing of the tale in the first place. Etsuko invents Sachiko to avoid responsibility for her treatment of her child. (And the reality that she was at least partially responsible for Keiko’s suicide).
It also ties in with another NP trait – “They project onto others qualities, traits, and behaviors they can’t—or won’t—accept in themselves.”
And another – “Have poor interpersonal boundaries. It’s been said about narcissists that they can’t tell where they end and the other person begins.”
In the End
Sachiko thinks she is justified from start to finish; Etsuko, some two decades later, has begun to contemplate that she may have been in the wrong, but distances herself from it, and justifies herself.
There is an observation, near the end of the book, where Etsuko mentions that she has neglected her tomatoes; they have fallen over.
She says in a casual yet chilling way that she never saw much use for them anyway.