When Literature gets too Real: Dipika Mukherjee Examines Never Let Me Go and Breaking News about the Cloning of Primates

(Spoiler Alert!)

Kazuo Ishiguro is the latest Nobel laureate in Literature, and when he won, I decided to read Never Let Me Go. Like most readers, I buy more books than I have time to read, and Ishiguro’s latest triumph just nudged me a little harder towards this book. I have long admired his understated, gorgeous prose.

Never Let Me Go starts very, very slowly and as I read, I was struck by the thought that if this were a book written by a woman, it would be dismissed as derivative YA fiction in the mould of Enid Blyton’s tales of British boarding schools. The love triangle seemed clichĂ©d and all too predictable, and I almost stopped reading.

But I had faith in the Ishiguro magic, the slow unfurling of earlier scenes which take on color as the story gently unspools. And this book does not disappoint.

When I finished the book, I had a vague sense of unease. And then, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the next three days.

The most astonishing books are like that, aren't they, implanting themselves in our subconscious and tugging at our deepest beliefs? Never Let Me Go takes on the human foolishness in staving off an inevitable death:
"We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we've lived through, or feel we've had enough time.”
Never Let Me Go was published in 2005; the movie version came out in 2010. Watch the trailer here.

Movies, in general, tend to think the audience is largely unsophisticated, which is an assumption that literary fiction never starts with. Never Let Me Go similarly spells out that this story is about human cloning pretty early into the movie. Because so much of the book’s weight rests on the gradual unveiling, the movie, despite the gorgeous cinematography and some excellent acting, did not work for me. The relationships were less layered, and some wonderful metaphors literally lost.

The all-Caucasian cast was also a great disappointment. While reading, I found delightful connections to the immigrant debate (certainly applicable in British communities) but Ishiguro’s nuanced narrative on valuing lives of all kinds was lost through the whitewashing of the cast.

Today, the world was told that Chinese researchers have managed to clone primates, refining the technology used on Dolly the sheep in 1996. An ABC Australia news article quotes: 
"Humans are primates. So [for] the cloning of primate species, including humans, the technical barrier is now broken," said Muming Poo, who helped supervise the program at the institute. 
"The reason … we broke this barrier is to produce animal models that are useful for medicine, for human health (italics mine). 
The New York Times has a more restrained response and assures "That Doesn't Mean You're Next". The Independent tells us that the pictures of the cute monkeys gloss over a life of pain.

As a writer of fiction, I have addressed the real issues of international adoptions and what an international demand is doing to the poorer women in Asia in Shambala Junction. Unfortunately, when market forces create enough of a demand, ethical issues are no longer a consideration and the business can become illegal quickly.  

Last week at a book club in Chicago, we discussed Never Let Me Go. One reader  found the story unrealistic because of the improbability of the science. Another dismissed the dystopia of the book as government regulations tightly control medical research.

Beyond the science, Ishiguro forces us to examine our own prejudices, and our own complicity in wanting a change; especially our desire to save those we love, no matter what the cost. The following lines do not occur in the movie, but they are at the heart of the book, where an adult spies on a cloned child, dancing with a doll:
“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.”
If you could protect your child or a parent from cancer, what price would you be willing to pay?


Umberto Tosi said…
You've moved "Never Let Me Go" to the front of the line of books that I've been meaning to read. Like all good reviews, your thought provoking personal critique examines the issues and inner experiences evoked by writer - and its film industry adapters - not simply the work itself. Thank you.
Susan Price said…
'The New York Times has a more restrained response and assures "That Doesn't Mean You're Next".'

I find this and the belief of the book-club woman that 'the government wouldn't allow it' to be incredibly naive. If something can be done, it will be done. Some governments may ban it publically, but others will allow it if it makes money.

And there's always the excuse that 'they're not real people, only clones.' This is the excuse we use about the animals in our labs: 'They don't feel the way we do.'

Great post, Dipika.
Ann Turnbull said…
Wow. I have to read this now. I love his books but somehow missed this one. I also want to read Shambala Junction. Thanks for this post, Dipika.

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