When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

by Robert A. Parker

I have long been curious about this author, and I am glad to have finally read him. Ishiguro was brought to England when he was five, and is clearly English now, and is contributing to serious British literature.

This 2000 novel is the story of Christopher Banks, who spends his youth with his parents in Shanghai around 1910, playing with a Japanese boy, Akira, until his parents mysteriously disappear, and then is sent to London to be raised by an aunt. Which suggests a parallel, in its way, to the author’s own change in his upbringing.

The novel begins with Banks in London, now a famous detective and moving about English society. An encounter with an intriguing woman, Sarah Hemmings, revives in him memories of his youth, and even as this portrait of London society becomes fully alive, we gradually realize that the novel is really to be about his attempts to discover what happened to his parents, and the effect on him of that effort. Perhaps it is even why this hero has chosen as his profession that of being a detective. (Or is that merely a convenience for the author?)

The heart of the novel concerns his return to Shanghai in 1937 when it is under siege by the Japanese. This is the most dramatic section of this novel, and its most effective. For Banks is misdirected by the British in his search, encounters again the intriguing Sarah Hemmings, follows up a clue about his parents that exposes him to the block-to-block fighting in Shanghai, believes he meets his boyhood pal Akira, now a Japanese soldier, is captured by the Japanese and returned to the British, and finally learns the fate of his parents.

He learns their fate from his Uncle Philip, who is not a fully fleshed character, but is a necessary one to the story. For Philip was involved in the disappearance of Banks’ mother, and he is now the one who explains the parent’s fate; and, much as the detective in a detective novel, takes many pages at the end to explain the motives and the guilt of the villain. Of course, while Philip confesses, he himself is only a half villain, which gives his character dimension but not sufficient depth. Even when he hands a pistol to Banks.

What Banks learns is not at all what he expected. Nor does the reader. In its way, it is an ironic ending, an intellectually convincing one, but it is not an emotionally convincing one, at least for me. Perhaps because it is an ending over which Banks has no control, and an ending which appears to have no repercussions on his subsequent life that is revealed in the final chapter. In this last chapter, Banks encounters a welcome truth about his family life, and yet it is a truth that should have been clear after the dramatic revelations in 1937. As Banks eases off into the sunset of life on the final pages, in fact, we sense that we understand more of his life than he does. Which, of course, is an ideal objective of many a novelist.

Despite any criticism I offer, I did enjoy this novel. Very much. Particularly the dramatic reality when Banks on his own ventures into the battle-scarred ruins of Shanghai, where danger and gunfire lurk behind every wall. And even when the outcome of this venture behind enemy lines is followed by a final revelation that let me down somewhat, I had to admire the professionalism of the author. And surely he would claim that this is what life is often like. That a life filled with drama is not always one that has a dramatic ending. That, instead, we often accommodate ourselves to the reality that overwhelms us.

One reason I enjoyed this novel so much is that it is a memory novel. Banks is recalling these events of his past, and is able to interpret them, to give them perspective, as he remembers them. His adventures are an attempt by him to resurrect the youthful experiences with his parents that he once so enjoyed. And yet we the reader also understand at times more than he does; we understand how his determination to find his parents is clouding the reality around him, whether it is his potential relationship with Sarah or the risks he faces, both at the battlefront and from the fellow Englishmen who are concealing their involvement in the opium trade of the past.

Another reason for enjoying this novel is that it has the structure of a detective novel. It is about this detective encountering obfuscation as he attempts to solve a mystery of his past, the disappearance of his parents. But it is more than a detective novel, of course. Because Banks’ character both is revealed by and determines the nature of that search. Thus, it is not the solution that matters here, as in a detective novel; it is the search itself.

The orphans of the title suggests the helplessness of Banks in confronting his own history. That he is left on his own, and becomes immersed in a culture he does not quite understand. This appears to be characteristic of other novels by Ishiguro as well. One speculates, in fact, how much his own history has influenced that perspective—of being born a Japanese boy and then fully integrated into the life of an Englishman.

So more novels by Ishiguro are a must. He is my kind of writer. He begins with character, creates an interesting life for that character, presents the character’s life with a perspective that enriches our understanding, describes this character and his life in a straightforward style, and yet conveys a reality that is below the surface, that is often between the lines. Perhaps that last is the tincture of Japanese that colors his British sensibility. (May, 2014)

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