There are two very worst ways to arrive at The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. The first is starting the journey by thinking it to be another English Butler story. Coloured by Reginald Jeeves, Nestor, or Cadbury - one would expect stiff-upper-lip-hilarity at every turn of the page. The second is reading it because it has won the Booker and its film has won an Academy Award. One would expect fireworks of emotion at every page. Unfortunately, these are the two most common ways to arrive at this book.
The best way to court this book is meeting it on a nondescript shelf at a quaint bookstore. You pick it up gently, ignore the blurb and other star-studded comments, and start reading it then and there. Then pay for it absent-mindedly on your way out and continue reading it till it's over. When this languid journey in an aging butler's mindscape will end, you will close the book with a sigh, a drop of tear and something welling up inside your chest you can't quite name. The author named him Stevens.
He is an elderly butler in Darlington Hall, one of the most prestigious mansions of Britain. The time is late 1950's and he is driving leisurely through the English Countryside to meet an ex-subordinate of his. The reader gets to ride pillion with his mind for these couple of days. And his thoughts turn from routine to philosophical, then slowly slither to deep and dark corners - With thoughts like whether his esteemed employer was really a Nazi-sympathiser or whether his relationship with the lady he was about to visit was as cut and dry as he would believe it to be. So gracefully and silently does the book turn into a tragedy, that it's almost like the day has turned into night outside, while you were poring over the book.
The main reason you get dissolved into and start flowing with the book so completely, is its language. You turn the pages not to get to the end, but to enjoy the journey. The lack of flash and the abundance of soft glow in his language is no coincidence. He happily devotes years to a book and agonizes weeks over a single sentence. His seemingly effortless, gentile style reflects his origin as a writer. For Kazuo Ishiguro, writing fiction was not his first choice of profession. "It was," he said, "like an arranged marriage. It starts coldly, but gradually you fall in love. It's almost like an addiction. After a while, you can't do without it." Remarkably little happens throughout the book, yet with his rare gift to make the mundane glorious, Kazuo Ishiguro leads us through the life and times of Stevens and leaves us quietly devastated.
Stevens is a character whose complete failure in all aspects of life except his work, will inspire pity and respect in equals parts. He finds no wrong in whatever his master does, even when Lord Darlington becomes a pawn in the hands of Nazi diplomats. He ignores the call of one true romance in his life because it might come in the way of his duty. He chooses to be at the beck and call of his master even when his father breathes his last upstairs. But what the world looks down upon as subservience and emotional atrophy, he looks up to as dignity, a noble ideal that makes a true butler. To him, dignity means being unfazed even when there is a tiger in the dining room. It means stopping the lewd behaviour of drunken guests with just a stare and a few firm words. It means doing your duty even when your father is on deathbed because your father wouldn't have wanted otherwise. To him, it means being a personification of flawlessness, loyalty, and professionalism. We don't know whether to laugh or cry at his recollection when his polishing of silver supposedly turns the tide in a crucial summit. Or when he hides his tears for losing his father under a flimsy excuse of work stress. The results of his constant strife to reach an unreachable ideal might be laughable, but the sincerity is heart-rending.
If the intimate, almost tangible details of an English Butler's mindscape leaves you out of breath and you think it is all thanks to his growing up in Britain and intense research, here's some more breathtaking information.
As a writer, Ishiguro believes more in imagination than research and deliberately chooses characters he knows nothing about. "I've always found it easier to be intimate and revealing with central characters who are not like me,'' he says. ''When you're dealing with someone not like yourself, you have to think much harder about why that person behaves in certain ways, why certain things have happened to him or her.'' How well this reverse psychology works is corroborated not only by the success of the book but also by the number of overwhelmed real English butlers who called him after reading it.
A book becomes a classic only when it touches a deep and universal human chord. The Remains of The Day is no exception. Because at the end of the day, it is not just a tragi-comic period tale of an aging English butler. It is the tale of a person who has given the world the best he has got and yet realises, it has not been enough. And even then he musters up enthusiasm and soldiers on with quiet dignity. Isn't that the story of all our lives?