It is the way of ideas to burn brightly for a time. Given enough fuel they ignite passions, blaze through communities, spark enlightenment and become beacons for the disenfranchised and hopeless.
But like the people who promote them, they dim and weaken until the fervour, the arguments and optimism which drove them turn to ash, and only darkness remains.
It may seem a melodramatic way to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story, A Village After Dark, yet it is this darkness – this vacuum of conviction where ideas once shone – which provides the main setting.
A Ragamuffin Returns
A Village After Dark takes place in the late 1990s. After years of roaming England, Fletcher, the protagonist, returns almost by chance to a village in which he claims to have exercised some influence. He arrives disorientated, as a man recently freed from a coma. After floundering his way through the village’s dark and winding streets he meets a young woman who recognises him. She invites him to her cottage but he declines and decides instead to knock on the door of a random cottage. The cottage is owned by the Petersons, who welcome him in reluctantly.
Once credulous disciples, the Petersons have since rejected Fletcher’s authority and teachings. A woman claims to be “baffled” as to how she had ever fallen for his spell, especially now when he seems like such a “ragamuffin”. Exactly what has caused this rejection we never find out; only that, as part of his mission to rally people to the cause, and to “contribute to the debate”, Fletcher habitually exploited the weak and seduced the gullible. “You ruined my life,” a former lover declares to him, and goes on to detail her revulsion for the man by whom she was once physically excited.
In the street he encounters the young woman again. She claims that she and her friends believe him to be “really important”; her motives remain unclear, however she offers a glimpse of the appeal Fletcher once enjoyed, and the hope that his values might have survived. However he is sidetracked by another former devotee, Robert Button, who convinces Fletcher to leave the village.
The Lifecycle of Ideas
Both Fletcher’s motives and those of his movement remain vague. We comprehend enough from his personal account to understand that, as a narrator, he is unreliable and possibly deluded. He admits his wrong doings yet lacks the humility and energy to redress them. Lust, deception and bullying were necessary components of a greater purpose. The flashback to his summer days living in the cottage alludes to a divinity of the aesthetic; a condition based on humanistic, if not hedonistic origins. Of his former associate, David Maggins, we know even less; only that he and Fletcher had championed the same cause with similar effect. That the group subsequently split, and its members have little contact with one another, speaks of a wider disintegration of their teachings – they have become nothing more than old and confused vagrants who once represented ‘something’ that is now too irrelevant to mention.
By not revealing this ‘something’ to the reader, Ishiguro is saying that it matters not whether their ideas existed, but that that they perished. It is the vacuum that is important; the emptiness that remains after an anti-climax, and the realisation that everything in which you believed is a hoax. We can seen it in the faces of the Petersons as they hunch around the fire in the narrow and gloomy streets of stone, in the ambiguous curiosity of the young, who, in Button’s words, have “so little else to believe in these days”. Such space is fertile ground for the growth of new philosophies, yet Ishiguro’s village remains shrouded in darkness. Here the author skillfully employs light to portray the presence and absence of intellectual enlightenment. Only the dying embers of a fire and the dim gleam of a solitary street lamp illuminate the world — it is as if the villagers have not yet managed to rekindle their imaginations after Fletcher’s suffocating preachments.
Was Fletcher a revolutionary? If we assume for one moment that Ishiguro’s tale is an analogy of, say, religion, then Fletcher’s success in and methods of disseminating his ideas intimate that he may have been. He seduced his followers with beguiling fantasy, tormented them with fear to preserve their faith. Button complains of the constant physical abuse he had suffered under Fletcher, who did so simply “to keep him in awe”. The movement Fletcher represented was indeed a novel way of looking at the world, and those who idolised him did so willingly, perhaps in the hope of achieving wisdom. It was, of course, a temporary delusion: the villagers have since, by way of experience or rational thought, woken up from Fletcher’s ‘spell’. Nevertheless, in the same manner society awards begrudging respect to people of faith regardless of their prior proclamations, the villagers, even those whom he most injured, demonstrate restraint (even courtesy) towards their former idol. The Petersons have moved on yet they still offer him food and rest. The woman strokes his hair as she chastises him, and Roger Button offers him forgiveness by conceding that “we all change”, suggesting that they consider his incumbency to be a regretful, but inevitable phase in the their evolution.
At the end of the story, Fletcher follows the young girl back to Wendy’s cottage – the haven of the supposed new generation. He understands, as all ideological movements must understand, that his only hope for survival lies in the youth. Fletcher expects Wendy and her young friends to have prepared him a fire and warm food, and he eagerly awaits their applause and adoration. But he is eventually unable to keep pace with the girl and is left alone with Button, who offers Fletcher a final, dignified exit, promising him passage on a bus of light and cheerful people. “You’ll feel warm and comfortable,” Button says, as if describing the final judgement to a dying believer. And as Fletcher sits at the bus stop, alone in the silence and darkness, waiting for a bus that the reader knows may never come, he is reassured by this belief and experiences a “stirring optimism” that his ideas may live on after all.
Thoughts on ‘A Village After Dark’
As far as short stories go, A Village After Dark is not a long piece and, depending on your attention span, tiptoes around the edges of flash fiction (considering that the length of short fiction in the New Yorker generally exceeds 9,000 words). Ishiguro promises a great deal early on: he baits us with so much potential knowledge that we start to doubt if the expanse of his narrative contains enough real estate for the satisfying pay-off we expect. It’s true: the lack of explanation is frustrating — I wanted to know what Fletcher and Maggis were preaching all those years ago so I could make my own moral judgements. All one can do is interpret. Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery didn’t need to disclose the ‘why’ and ‘when’ of the plot to enhance the effect of its fascinatingly brutal conclusion. I would argue that the omission of the ‘why’ in A Village After Dark was needed in order to thrust to the forefront the notion that ideas are as mortal as we are. And thanks to the haunting setting and engaging attitudes of the characters, I did not feel cheated by the story’s equivocal conclusion.
Still, A Village After Dark, despite the excellent prose and imagery, left me ultimately unfulfilled. I wasn’t given any reason to love or loathe the characters; something I also felt after reading Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go. We hear through anecdote that Fletcher’s exploits were immoral, yet even those who despise him, whether out of pity or some higher brand of post-Fletcher morality, have already forgiven him. Due to this and his unsophisticated innocence, the conflict falls flat and I became disinterested in his fate. At the end he seemed to have forsaken reason for the promise of happiness (a not altogether inconsistent choice), and as I left him at the bus stop to face death, senility or worse, I was just as disoriented about his journey, both past and future, as Fletcher himself.
Read A Village After Dark