Since the popular and critical success of his Booker Prize-winning novelThe Remains of the Day (1989), Kazuo Ishiguro has experimented with the novel form from the position of his heightened celebrity. Since When We Were Orphans draws on his two previous works for its aesthetic plan, some discussion of the former novels provides a useful sense of context. In The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro draws on the conventions of nineteenth century British fiction, allowing social forms to bind and control the more unruly human pathos underlying the storyline. It is both a well-oiled traditional novel, well deserving its Merchant-Ivory film production, and a postmodern commentary on how professional identity can undermine humanity. Following the self-denial of his butler’s code of ethics, the narrator, Stevens, chooses to ignore his father’s death in order to serve drinks to his master’s guests. By the end of the novel, he learns that his sense of duty has cost him the one possible love of his life and that he performed that duty for a man who foolishly helped the Nazis before World War II. Ultimately, Stevens has little to show for his life except the futile sense of a job well done.
Since the success of The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro has searched for a new fictional form to help explore his characteristic themes of exile, the vagaries of identity, the role of the artist in society, and the distortions of memory. His next work, The Unconsoled (1995), switched to a more Kafkaesque narrative mode. This novel concerns a young, accomplished pianist’s visit to a European city for a recital. Far more surreal and daring in its construction than anything Ishiguro had written before, this novel shows the risks inherent in imitating Kafka’s narrative style. Kafka’s novels manage to blend dream and reality with an allegorical undertow that hints at all kinds of contexts, from totalitarian guilt to existential questions of identity to religious allegory. His hypnogogic stories always hint at more underneath the surface. Writers who try to imitate Kafka have no trouble with the surreal, but the sense of an underlying pattern is much harder to reproduce. Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled suffers from the comparison. As time and space warp and shift, walls appear out of nowhere, and the narrator finds himself giving impromptu dinner speeches in his bathrobe. Such anxious scenes become repetitiously dull pretty quickly. With mixed reviews and a poor public reception, The Unconsoled was a disappointing follow-up.
Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans bears traces of both the nineteenth century English novel craft of Remains and the surreality of The Unconsoled. While still retaining some Kafkaesque moments, When We Were Orphans marks a retreat from the radical experimentation of the previous novel. This time following the generic parameters of a detective novel, Ishiguro explores how seemingly casual events and patterns of behavior in one’s youth can influence adult identity. Christopher Banks, the novel’s narrator, is born in Shanghai and lives there in the International Settlement until first his father and then his mother inexplicably disappear, presumably kidnapped by opium smugglers because of his mother’s strong political stand against them. At the age of seven, Christopher abruptly leaves Shanghai to go to school in the country of his parents, England, where he grows up to become a detective who gains some notoriety for his crime-solving. By weaving together unreliable memories with current events of the 1930’s, Ishiguro reveals that Christopher wants to return to Shanghai to solve the crime of his parents’ kidnapping and thereby free himself from the burden of the past. When he was a child, he would play detective games in which he would save his father from the kidnappers, and as an adult he decides to carry out that very design by returning to Shanghai.
Because of Christopher’s remoteness and detachment as a narrator, the novel can seem aloof from its subject matter. Ishiguro never allows the reader to really see Christopher at work except when he is observing something with his magnifying glass or taking notes. In contrast to the more fully realized butler in The Remains of the Day, Christopher’s detective career seems more an idea than a fully realized occupation. Ishiguro admits in an interview that he writes with a kind of shorthand when it comes to details. Since people live in the image glut of television...
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