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  • Serving a New World Order: Postcolonial Politics in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day1
  • Susie O’Brien (bio)

In a 1994 article in GQ magazine entitled “Stick It Up Howard’s End,” English writer John Ash identifies a growing American fascination with sentimental representations of upper-class British life. 2 A recent symptom of what Ash labels Merchant Ivory Syndrome (MIS) was the 1993 nomination of The Remains of the Day, the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize-winning novel, for five Oscars. The film is typical of Merchant Ivory productions in its recreation, in sumptuous (if not strictly accurate) period detail, of life within the upper echelons of English society before the Second World War. It may be read, Ash argues, as an example of what is called, in German, edelkitsch. Meaning, literally, “noble kitsch,” the term describes “a form of cultural necrophilia, a slavering delectation of things we are (or should be) well rid of, such as dehumanizing class distinctions, rigid social codes and crippling repression” (43). Speculating on the growth of the phenomenon in the U.S., Ash wonders whether it might be “the symptom of a lingering colonial mentality” (43) and concludes “surely, the nation that has given us (among other things) abstract expressionism, jazz and Wallace Stevens [End Page 787] has no reason to doff its collective baseball cap in the direction of perfidious Albion” (43).

If the significance of this American cultural sampler is not precisely defined, it is obviously meant to represent something explicitly opposed to class distinctions, rigid social codes, and repression. What Ash finds so inexplicable about Merchant Ivory Syndrome, then, is that it seems to have infected a culture whose very existence was founded in opposition to the stodginess of British tradition. 3 It seems to me possible to argue, however, that the Merchant Ivory phenomenon has found a captive American audience not through the denial, but through the amplification of this mythic opposition. In other words, I would suggest that the significance of the colonial ambience described by Ash is defined largely by the extent to which it is constructed in explicit contrast to the image of a liberated, “postcolonial” America. This contrast is suggested most strongly in the novel which inspired one of Merchant Ivory’s most recent box office successes—Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day—a novel whose “postcolonial” politics are the focus of this paper.

I want to look at The Remains of the Day in two ways: first, as a narrative which is thematically constructed around an opposition between what are commonly regarded as Victorian values—formality, repression, and self-effacement, summed up under the general heading of “dignity”—and those associated with an idea of “America” that has expanded, literally into a New World—freedom, nature, and individualism—and second, as a text which has come to occupy a significant place in global popular culture, not just as source material for Merchant Ivory, but, more significantly for the purposes of this paper, as an exemplary product of a burgeoning “world” fiction industry. Through this discussion, I will attempt to work through some of the different valencies of “postcoloniality” which this text seems to me to present, in order, at the risk of straining further an already overworked term, to suggest ways in which the contradictory significations which have come to define the postcolonial can be productively deployed to illuminate the changing discursive structure of global power.

In a now infamous article in Time magazine, whose title—“The Empire Writes Back”—resonates throughout the history of postcolonial study, 4 Pico Iyer hails Ishiguro as “a paradigm of the polycultural order” (54). Ishiguro, Iyer explains, together with Salman Rushdie, [End Page 788] occupies a privileged place “at the center of [a] new movement of ‘World Fiction’” where he is surrounded by “a host of other constellations”—Ben Okri, Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth and Timothy Mo (54). All of these writers, Iyer notes, have “something in common. All are writers not of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, born more or less after the war, and choosing to write in English” (56). While a suspicious reader might demand to know why all of...

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