When We Were Orphans

by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1860

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 and films, Ishiguro believes the novelist should suggest images already in the reader’s head: “You don’t have to describe very much as a novelist. You can just, with a few little key words, evoke certain images. To a certain extent you can muck about with stereotypes and stereotypical images and you juxtapose them in unlikely ways.” While this technique lends itself to narrative speed and economy, Ishiguro runs the risk of thinning out his descriptive palette. Without enough quotidian detail, scenes sometimes slide by on convention, leaving the novel insufficiently grounded in a particular time and place.

However, not fitting into one’s milieu is part of Ishiguro’s point. As a boy he was uprooted, this time from Japan at the age of five, and transplanted in England, where he grew up always viewing England from both outside and inside simultaneously. His works reflect the postmodern writer’s increasing concern with the blending and blurring of international boundary lines. What goes for Ishiguro also applies to his lead character. At home neither in England nor in Shanghai, Christopher cultivates an imaginary zone in between where he can combat evil to make up for the loss of his parents. While Banks has his successes in criminal detection, Ishiguro ultimately exposes him as naïve about his roots in the world. He needs to return to Shanghai to see through his delusions of recovering his parents.

As the storyline develops, Ishiguro conveys a straight Proustian concern with the unreliability of memory. Early on, Banks keeps noting how his old friends have radically different memories of his childhood in England. When he remembers himself as fitting in smoothly, they remember him as “withdrawn and moody.” A success as a detective investigating other people’s crimes, Christopher shows himself inept and solipsistic when it comes to seeing himself. Oddly, Ishiguro allows side characters to play along with Christopher’s delusions, perhaps out of deference to his reputation, perhaps as a way to string him along. Thus, when he arrives back in Shanghai during the bombing of the Sino-Japanese war, Guest finds himself planning a ceremony at Jessfield Park to celebrate the freeing of his parents who have been missing for over twenty years. When he was a child, he used to plan the same thing with his friend Akira. The idea of celebrating such a long-term unsolved crime seems like wish-fulfillment. There is no thought of his parents being somewhere else or dead. In effect, Christopher returns to the playacting of his youth as an adult professional. Hardly mindful of the war raging around him, Christopher sets off at the merest of hints to find the house where his parents presumably still reside behind enemy lines. He encounters bombed-out slums, dead bodies, civilians armed with spades, and a passed out Japanese soldier that he is sure is Akira, his old playmate. Wounded and delirious, they crawl through holes in the walls, listening to the screams of the wounded, and all Christopher can think of is his parents. The scenes create a dreamlike confluence of the idealized past and the grotesque present. For Christopher, the mythos of his youth remains far more powerful than the evidence of the devastation around him.

On occasion, Christopher has intimations of escape from both his search and his occupation. Romance could provide one such exit, but Christopher allows his professional obligations to interfere with his dalliance with Sarah Hemmings, who stands out in the novel for her aggressive social climbing. She attempts to use Christopher’s social connections to crash an upper crust party honoring Cecil Medhurst, and once she does get in, she goes on to marry Cecil, even though he is clearly too old for her. Later she and Cecil lead Christopher out to Shanghai, and after Cecil becomes corrupted by gambling, Sarah invites Christopher to drop his investigation into his parents’ disappearance and run off with her to Macao. When Sarah asks Christopher to leave with her, she expresses a yearning for some stable affection that would replace all of the rootless professional striving of the novel’s characters. As she says,

All I know is that I’ve wasted all these years looking for something, a sort of trophy I’d get only if I really, really did enough to deserve it. But I don’t want it any more, I want something else now, something warm and sheltering, something I can turn to, regardless of what I do, regardless of who I become. Something that will just be there, always, like tomorrow’s sky.

Even though Christopher feels a great sense of relief when he agrees to her proposal to drop everything and run away, he ironically learns of a “break” in the case concerning his parents just when he is set to leave, and ultimately backs out. As in The Remains of the Day, the main character’s occupation takes precedence over romance.

Naturally, the evil that Banks seeks to battle proves far more virulent that he had anticipated, and he soon learns that his parents long ago went their separate ways. After he recovers from his fruitless search through the bombed out cityscape, Christopher’s Uncle Philip finally fills him in. His father had actually run off with his mistress and died soon after. Meanwhile, in her righteous fury over the opium trade, his mother had physically insulted a Chinese war lord, Wang Ku, who abducted and sexually enslaved her for years in exchange for funding young Christopher’s British education. Christopher’s illusions are exposed as childish, but the novel remains ambivalent about which perspective is better—the cynical view of the adult or the more heroic view of the child. When Christopher notices that the children suffering war conditions have to “learn so early how ghastly things really are,” the Japanese soldier who adopts Akira’s role replies: “When we nostalgic, we remember. A world better than this world we discover when we grow. We remember and wish good world would come back again.”

Working from an aesthetic borne out of an unease between loyalties to different cultures and different times, Ishiguro searches for moments of Eastern peace amidst the more European quest for identity through achievement. In its graceful and detached way, When We Were Orphans illustrates how little control people have over the larger myths that dictate their lives.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (July, 2000): 1974.

The Economist 355 (April 15, 2000): 12.

Library Journal 125 (August, 2000): 157.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 24, 2000, p. 2.

The New Leader 83 (September/October, 2000): 42.

The New Republic 223 (October 16, 2000): 43.

The New York Review of Books 47 (October 5, 2000): 4.

The New York Times, September 19, 2000, p. E7.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (September 24, 2000): 12.

Publishers Weekly 247 (July 10, 2000): 41.

Time 156 (September 18, 2000): 86.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 31, 2000, p. 21.

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