‘When We Were Orphans’ by Kazuo Ishiguro (Review)

It’s a slow journey, but I’m gradually making headway in my attempt to review all of my Kazuo Ishiguro books on the blog.  After covering the excellent An Artist of the Floating World a while back, today sees me revisiting another of the writer’s early novels, once again set in the Far East.  However, this time around the Japanese influence is tangential.  Instead, we’ll be spending most of our time in pre-war Shanghai, a city bold and brash enough to make even the most calm and collected among us start to lose the plot somewhat – even if the writer doesn’t.

*****
Ishiguro’s 2000 novel When We Were Orphans is the story of Christopher Banks, whom we meet in London just after his graduation from university in the early 1920s.  He’s a wealthy young man enjoying his time in the great metropolis by catching up with friends and making new acquaintances.  All the while, though, he’s also preparing himself to enter a rather unusual profession – that of private investigation.

The reason for this strange choice lies in the past, and the writer soon takes us there, showing young Christopher growing up in the international settlement in Shanghai, playing happily with his Japanese next-door neighbour, Akira, and going on occasional outings in the nicer areas of the city.  Tragically, at a tender age, both his parents disappear, and while it may seem that the boy has grown into a successful man, the loss is ever-present, driving him towards his one life goal of finding out what happened to them.  Once he’s ready, he’ll return to Shanghai and track them down; it’s just that by the time he gets there, the world will be a very different place, indeed.

When We Were Orphans is a novel I’ve read several times, another superb demonstration of Ishiguro’s unique style.  It’s a story narrated in several parts by Banks, one in a long line of the writer’s unreliable narrators.  If we say unreliable, though, that’s not to be taken in the sense of his deliberately withholding information from the reader.  It has more to do with the fact that our friend has certain blind spots, not always able to pick up what people really think about him.  He’s often working through these issues while telling us the story, trying to convince us (and himself) that everything is right when he has a nagging feeling it’s not.

There’s also the simple fact that Banks himself is often in the dark.  In his own words, he tells us how he has become a notable and respected investigator, yet he’s only slowly making progress on the one case that really matters.  He does his best to make sense of the scattered fragments of the truth he finds from time to time, and in a sense, the reader is just as informed as he is, his measured accounts acting as his way of going over the case in his mind.

The development of Christopher’s character throughout When We Were Orphans is one of the highlights of the book.  He’s a man who prides himself on his memory, convincing us of his control of affairs and his recall, and even the occasions when he admits to certain gaps in his knowledge are meant to shore up our confidence in what he’s telling us:

The room itself had tall grand ceilings, a large map on one wall, and behind Mr Anderson’s desk, great windows through which the sun was beating and a breeze blowing.  I should think there were ceiling fans moving above me, though I do not actually remember this.  What I do remember is that I was sitting in that chair in the middle of the room, the centre of solemn concern and discussion.
p.24 (Faber & Faber, 2005)

His prose is impeccable, and he usually seems serene, in control, only to have outsiders disturb his self-image with a casually dropped comment about the past.  Their random remarks about his childhood tendencies, his mania for investigation or his tendency to keep himself to himself shatter his memories, causing psychic wounds that he attempts to heal through denial.  The character he attempts to construct over the course of the first chapters, one he builds for himself, is slightly different to the one the reader will actually discern.

Given this tendency, it’s unsurprising that the inevitable journey to Shanghai, the crowning glory of his career, is unlikely to turn out quite as he’d expected.  It’s here that our controlled detective begins to unravel, realising too late that his many years of theoretical research won’t do much for him out in the real world.  Little by little, as the chaos, squalor and heat of Shanghai begin to wear him down, he becomes ever more desperate, failing to heed the warnings given by those around him of the folly of believing he can change things single-handedly:

“But in the end,” he went on, “this city defeats you.  Every man betrays his friend.  You trust someone, and he turns out to be in the pay of a gangster.  The government are gangsters too.  How is a detective to do his duty in a place like this?” (p.204)

By the end, there’s a sense he’s merely deluding himself that a breakthrough is just around the corner.

It’s not just our great detective who’s on a downward spiral, though.  Part of the triumph of When We Were Orphans lies in the way Ishiguro shows us a smug, self-satisfied world sliding into disaster.  The early chapters, both those set in London and in Shanghai, show us a world of well-off colonialists, enjoying the life of plenty these rulers of the early-twentieth century ‘deserve’.  The writer then subtly undermines this image, allowing the world to slowly wend its way towards disaster, showing how the torpor of the colonial era contains the seeds of its own ruin:

What has quietly shocked me, from the moment of my arrival, is the refusal of everyone here to acknowledge their drastic culpability.  During this fortnight I have been here, throughout all my dealings with these citizens, high or low, I have not witnessed – not once –  anything that could pass for honest shame.  Here, in other words, at the heart of the maelstrom threatening to suck in the whole of the civilised world, is a pathetic conspiracy of denial; a denial of responsibility which has turned in on itself in the sort of pompous defensiveness I have encountered so often. (p.162)

Some, like Banks, are shown as trying to hold back the tide, attempting to hold up the forces of evil that are inexorably advancing.  Alas, most others have simply given up, turning a blind eye to the approaching waves of corruption and destruction.

When We Were Orphans is a novel of the unreliability of memory, but also of the move towards global war.  Ishiguro’s work acts as an indictment of colonial activities, particularly when the colonisers enjoy the benefits but fail to impose any sort of order, with the rottenness at the core of ‘civilisation’ oozing out well before Banks returns to Shanghai.  As much as we might be cheering our hero on, we sense that his attempt to go back in time and right the wrongs of his childhood is a futile one, doomed to failure.

That’s certainly not something you’d say about the book.  While poor little Christopher’s story has a sad ending, Ishiguro’s tale is far more successful, and unlike our hapless investigator, I enjoyed my return to Shanghai immensely.  Another excellent novel reviewed, then – look out for more when I get the time 😉

11 thoughts on “‘When We Were Orphans’ by Kazuo Ishiguro (Review)

  1. This sounds like the kind of Ishiguro I might enjoy. I really liked Artist of the Floating World (I guess the Japanese setting was a bonus for me), but not so much The Unconsoled (good in parts but too long) and Never Let Me Go (bit of a tear-jerker/melodrama for my taste)

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    1. Marina Sofia – I loved ‘The Unconsoled’, and I’ve been meaning to and time for a reread for a good while now. I’d probably tentatively agree with you on ‘Never Let Me Go’, though; while I enjoyed it, there’s probably a reason why I haven’t tried it more than once…

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  2. This was my first Ishiguro way back when it came out and I’ve been following him ever since plus going back and catching up on those I hadn’t read. I was delighted when he won the Nobel. I following him still although I think I’ve only read Remains of the Day twice. It would be fun to reread some of the others. I do so enjoy a good reread.

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    1. Becky – He’s certainly a writer whose work stands up to rereading, and I’ve read several of them more than once 🙂

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