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Fatal Ambition: Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro
When We Were Orphans
(Knopf, 2000)

This does in fact seem like the sort of advice that a vigilant agent or editor, concerned that Ishiguro’s stodgy image was becoming a liability, might issue. But there is a delicious Ishigurian irony to the possibility that the author concluded this all on his own, and decided that the answer lay in proactive plotting--a scenario all the more believable given what a disastrous piece of advice this appears to have been. Presiding over this plot-driven narrative is the first-person narrator, Christopher Banks. We meet Christopher as a young man in London in 1930, a blankly compliant participant in the rituals and values of status-conscious English good society, and an aspiring professional detective, in the tropish, most romantic sense of the phrase. The story unfolds over the next seven years, as Christopher succeeds in his chosen profession and single-mindedly sets his mind toward revisiting, with an eye toward remedying, the event that gave birth to his aspirations: the mysterious disappearance of his parents in colonial Shanghai, where he spent the first decade or so of his life. Flashbacks to salient events from his childhood constitute a major portion of the book. His father and mother emerge as roughly drawn personalities: he a weak, resigned, and beholden employee of an English company that participates in the Shanghai opium trade; she a strong, charismatic, and mildly subversive activist against the trade. Another part of his past which Christopher wishes to repossess is a long-lost Japanese childhood friend—the precocious and prematurely neurotic Akira, a lucid illustration of the debilitating pressures that the world’s more demanding societies, presumably including England as well as Japan, place on their members.

While sifting through these memories  and combining them with the fruits of his much-touted and rarely witnessed detective work, Christopher finds time to let two other individuals enter the significant zone of the narrative: Jennifer, a suspiciously optimistic orphaned child whom he takes on as a ward, and a young woman named Sarah Hemmings. The latter, perhaps the most elegantly drawn character in the novel, is yet another orphan, and perhaps the story’s orphan par excellence. Her obvious persona as a shamelessly manipulative social climber is a poor mask for-in fact, a cleverly fine emblem of—her vulnerability and generous ambitions, and she emerges as a more intelligent, more humane hypothetical mirror image of Christopher himself. Both of these females, at various times, offer him the possibility of affection and domestic wholeness; both times, these offers conflict with his quest to find the remedy for his orphanhood in the past, and both times he rejects them.

By 1937, that quest finally lands him back in Shanghai, this time a macabre city under Japanese attack. At this point, the narrative acquires a surreality for which the reader has been ill-prepared. The always obtuse Christopher finds that nothing is as he expected and hoped; unfortunately, so does the more epistemologically privileged reader. Christopher does indeed discover the fate of his father and mother, and may even reunite with his old friend Akira, but his success results in none of the romance or resolution that gave the quest meaning. The reader is likewise left frustrated, though not out of sympathy; the problem is that the “Solution” to the book’s central mystery has no organic roots in the mystery as we know it, and is too geared toward shock to satisfy. It is clear that part of Ishiguro’s mission here was to deconstruct the older and closure of classic detective stories, but that is no real consolation at the novel’s end, since it has been clear from the very beginning. Christopher is a detective who understands nothing, a mere passive site on which relevant facts seem to fasten themselves. More often than not, by his own profession, he recalls a fact or a face crucial to the mystery of his parents’ disappearance “quite by chance.” Additionally, he is defensive and unreliable; twice, he encounters English school friends who recall for him his social isolation as a youth, and he irritably rushes to insist, with as much passion as he ever does anything, that his own memories do not correspond with theirs in this respect. We may hear bombastic secondhand accounts of his success in his field, but not long into the book the reader knows that Christopher is doomed. We know it from the forced naivete of the first-person prose, the loneliness of Christopher’s life and mission, the air of moderately articulate yet somehow noiseless suffering that surrounds this ambitious detective.

In other words, When We Were Orphans is a failure. Plot and suspense are sacrificed to the psychology of the main character precisely as the psychology of the other, not unimportant characters is sacrificed to ploy and suspense.

I cannot end this review there, however. Ishiguro has enough weight as a writer to deserve more than a yes-or-no verdict. His fondness for unreliable narration, present to some degree in all of his novels, might be dismissible as a smug trick, far too common in modern letters. Unreliable narration most often is, but Ishiguro’s approach is not simply clever. Postmodern thought concedes that all subjectivities are hopelessly limited by systems of thought and—dare I say it—discourses that are too flawed and contingent to allow for any authority or reliability. Postmodern literature often embraces this observation with knowing glee. But Ishiguro often seems to be registering shy protest against it and even suggesting that some better possibility is lost by his narrators’ submission to rigid and readily abused ways of thinking.

The limits of Christopher’s limited psyche are inextricably tied to his chosen profession of detective. This choice is psychologically traced to his desire to solve the case of his missing parents, but the novel also links it, not subtly but wisely, to more impersonal forces; namely high society’s rhetoric of public service and social duties. Christopher envisions his work of solving heiress murders and jewel thefts as nothing less than “combating evil,” and, on the eve of World War II, the circles he moves in are quite taken with the “general picture of how certain forms of evil manifest themselves.” In the murky reality of the latter portion of the book, his acquaintances equate his search for his patents in Shanghai with a quest to release that troubled city from Japanese shelling, revenge killings of Communists’ children by Nationalists, and perhaps opium addiction and corrosive property as well. Add to this the stark inequalities of semi-colonial Shanghai, all the lives in exile lived in that same city, and the potential role that his parents’ disagreement over the opium trade played in the disintegration of Christopher’s family, and the novel’s ambitious message comes into focus: ruptured families correspond with the brutal results of ruptured social orders, and orphan-hood is the emblematic condition of the worst of 20th century history.

The narrator of The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s most-read novel, was beholden to an ethos of ceremony and class distinctions that, for most present-day readers, is comfortable distant and discredited. But When We Were Orphans indicts a way of thinking that is far closer to home: the grand sense of public responsibility that pervades the more privileged corners of the world. Members of the same elite circles who in London claim for themselves the onus of “making a difference” in the world reassemble in the Cathay Hotel in Shanghai, where they take up opera glasses to watch the explosions of Japanese shells outside of the International settlement and declare, “So that’s the war. Most interesting. Are there many casualties, do you suppose?” Christopher’s friend Sarah Hemmings married a retired public servant whom she hopes is “the man to undertake that great mission,” persuades him to take his talents to Shanghai, and then, when he forsakes that “great mission” for gambling and drink, concludes, quite credibly that, “it was beyond him, and I think that’s what it was, that’s what broke him.” Christopher himself identifies among his countrymen in Shanghai “a pathetic conspiracy of denial; a denial of responsibility,” but the reader is tempted to ask whether the problem is not so much a denial of responsibility as the overweening, delusional assumption of it. Sarah invites him to throw over his own great mission and run off to more peaceful climes with her and his ward, Jennifer, thus offering the possibility of a reconstituted family structure for all three orphans and he nearly accepts but in the end elects instead to pursue a highly unlikely search for his parents in the war-torn Chinese districts of Shanghai. On that search, he remains undeterred by the sight of dogs devouring corpses and the howls of wounded soldiers; still paramount for him is an aim that derives from an orphaned child’s dream of saving his parents, every bit as great an example of overreaching as an adult’s dream of saving the world.

For all its failings, When We Were Orphans is a commendable, perhaps even recommendable book. Its thematic ambitions are high enough to disorient the reader at times, and it is very possible that ambitio got the better of the book, which often seems to suffer from no malady more complex than that of being too short and too spare for the content it hopes and promises to deliver. In any case, Ishiguro seems to me a special, important writer. The Unconsoled, his most recent work besides Orphans, is magnificent. Much of what is strong about the latter novel is there, thicker and more polished, in The Unconsoled: a canny critique of the hypertrophied concerns of cultured people (in the case of The Unconsoled, the reverence paid to abstract art) and the blunt unmasking of the casualties of such concerns. In both novels, those casualties include interpersonal closeness, and the image of the lonely soul, rendered with enough unflinching calm to preclude any sense of the maudlin, haunts Ishiguro’s readers like the memento mori of classical paintings. A fine illustration of this message is an exchange in Orphans between Christopher and Anthony Morgan, an old school friend of the former living a solitary life in Shanghai, concerning the residence that Morgan has recently moved out of:

“Wasn’t much of a home anyway,” he said, looking into his cocktail. “…It was a miserable little place. All my furniture was Chinese. Couldn’t sit comfortably anywhere. Had a songbird once, but it died…” Then he looked at his watch, drained his glass, and said, “Well, better not keep them waiting. Cars outside.”

There was something about Morgan’s manner—a kind of nonchalant urgency—that made it hard to raise any objections.


Valerie Jaffe


The Brooklyn Rail


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