Michiko Kakutani, the reviewer for The New York Times, claims that Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go (2005) is “a meditation on mortality” (quoted on the book cover). Originally published in 2005, it was recently released as a feature starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield (who gives another stunning performance after his powerful portrayal of Eduardo Saverin, Mark Zuckerberg’s only real friend in The Social Network), and Keira Knightley.
The film remains relatively close to the novel, with only few minor plot tweaks and augmentations to spell out the metaphors that the novel so craftily works into the spaces between the lines. But the strong performances by all three actors, and the poetic cinematography and music make up for the loss of literary depth.
The novel’s premise, as we follow the three protagonists from childhood into adulthood, and witness them coming to terms with the utmost sense of loss of everything they have and are, can be read as a metaphor for our own fragility in the face of loss, aging, and pain.
As we grow older, the fantasies we carry with us since childhood, the worlds we construct as adults, and our bodies begin to fall apart. The unyielding, merciless nature of our mortality, and the inevitable sense of loss attached to it, slowly begins to creep into our daily reality after a certain age, and once it can no longer be drowned out by the noise and distractions, it just stays there. A memento mori, a dread or a hint of sadness we tend to brush away, knowing that we are always running out of time. Ishiguro personifies this process through his three protagonists, who unlike most people, begin to run out of time even faster.
Just as for the protagonists, who wish to enjoy their time together a little longer, there are, ultimately, no “deferrals,” and there is no point to rebel. C’est la vie. “But what a pity we left it so late” (Ishiguro 239), Tommy tells Kathy with a tinge of sadness that reminds the reader to cease the day, to live one’s life to the fullest, to make every moment count, before “it’s too late” (233).
The protagonists feel, long, think, speak, act, and have urges like us, but they are not like us – or are they? – that question is to be debated with no end. What seems to be a more pressing question to ask (which the novel only implies but the film asks directly at the very end), is in what way are we like them?
Creatures with only a limited amount of time allocated before we “complete,” yet endowed with the capacity to carry in us all the people, things, thoughts, beliefs, fears, and hopes we encounter throughout our lives. We engage, connect, build, create only to be disconnected from it all in the end. We know it’s essentially all futile, yet we learn and teach, produce and create, almost despite ourselves. “Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? … why all those lessons?” Kathy asks her former guardian at the end (259).
Ishiguro touches on the ultimate human predicament, the question philosophers have been asking since the beginning of culture as we know it: what is the meaning of life if it’s finite? The guardians answer: “You build your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you?” (268).
We are who we are because of what we do and choose to spend our lives doing. We find meaning only through this engagement with life and self-actualization. But by the time we’ve completed creating ourselves, we realize we are running out of time, and how short, scarce, and incomplete this project we call life turns out to be.
And the very fragments and pieces of our lives, of our selves (the people we love, the ideas and works we put our lives into, the things and memories we cherish), all that helped us to create meaning and make life better, washes up in the end as the things we are undoubtedly, inevitably going to lose.
In the end we all have to come to terms with letting go. It makes it a little more bearable if we contemplate what it would really mean to never let go.
But to end on that note is to leave the glass half empty. We write, we paint, we take pictures, we make films, we write music, we play instruments, we sing, we dance, we bake, we cook, we taste, we love, we construct, we design, we create and organize, we argue, we resolve, we win, we lose, we compete, we try to capture moments and glimpses and put into words how we feel, how others make us feel, we try to make time stand still, and steal away moments and kisses that do not belong to us, despite all odds, all challenges, because we can, and because these are the only things we have that give us certainly and meaning and even joy.
There are many things that distract us, that pass the time, that let us escape – sometimes too easily. Sometimes we just float through life, past things and people and places, barely touching the surface. Too afraid, too busy, too reluctant to hold on. As children we can’t wait to grow up to be able to do all the things we want to do. As adults we forget that. Life gets in the way of things that we somehow deemed important. Sometimes we need a reminder to hold on to what matters.
Memories and fantasy play a particularly crucial role in the novel. The protagonists build and base much of their lives on memories of their childhood together and a hope, a fantasy of a future together, which they are denied. As their former guardian, Miss Emily explains to them, “It’s something for them to dream about, a little fantasy. What harm is there? But for the two of you, I can see this doesn’t apply. You are serious. You’ve thought carefully. You’ve hoped carefully. For students like you, I do feel regret. It gives me no pleasure at all to disappoint you. But there it is” (258). Both in the novel and the film, memories are given an almost inflated value, as the only kind of personal property that “no one will ever take from you” (268) and something that cannot be “lost” (286), unlike everything and everyone else.
At the end of the novel, allowing herself, for once, to drift into fantasy at the moment of utmost despair, Kathy visualizes her losses: “That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk, after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him. I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that – I didn’t let it – and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be” (287-88).
In the end, our dreams somehow get the better of us. They also make us vulnerable. As Hamlet posed in his “to be or not to be” soliloquy, “what dreams may come?”