When We Were Orphans (2000) Kazuo Ishiguro ’s fifth novel is not the incomprehensible, nightmarish (ersatz Kafka) mess that his previous novel, The Unconsoled 1995), was. But it is also far from returning to the mastery of an unreliable narrator (who does not understand what he is relating) of his superb Booker Prize-winning novel Remains of the Day, or his earlier, also quite accomplished The Artist of the Floating World. All three are set in the days just before World War II (which began earlier in China than in Europe). The earlier ones were set in Japan and England. A large (and not very interesting!) chunk of When We Were Orphans is set in England, but even there, the narrator (Christopher Banks, called “Puffin” for no discernible reasons) is preoccupied with the relationships of his childhood: relationships to his parents, both of whom mysteriously disappeared when he was ten, to the Chinese woman who cared for him (his amah), and to his Japanese playmate Akira.
Seemingly even before Akira and he began playing detective imagining resolutions for the kidnapping of Christopher’s father. In England he develops a reputation as a discerning sleuth, though this is asserted rather than credibly illustrated by Ishiguro. Inevitably, he returns to Shanghai to try to solve the mystery of the successive disappearances of his parents. To put it mildly, 1937 is a particularly difficult time to do this, as the Japanese invaders are fighting in the streets of the Chinese city of Shanghai (though leaving in place the international concessions where Christopher grew up).
The most vivid part of the novel involves getting to a house Christopher is convinced that it is where his parents have been held for two decades. However, it is on the front lines of the battle with first Chinese and then Japanese help. He also gets an earful about the Kuomintang’s greater concern with fighting communists than with fighting the Japanese invaders. .
The characterization is very poor; all the main characters seem cardboard. Certainly, Ishiguro has drawn unsympathetic protagonists before, but they are more interesting and more plausible than Christopher is. Although most of the loose ends are tied up (one irritatingly is not), at the close of the novel I have no clear idea about what Christopher felt about what he learned, or, for that matter, what he remembered from his childhood. “Uncle Philip,” the novel’s most interesting character seems to have prefigured Christopher in the role of male English spinster, and is indeed emotionally stunted, but at least he feels and communicates some emotions. Uncle Philip’s final scene is extremely melodramatic, but in it he almost comes to life, The reader is, however, given no indication of what Christopher feels about what he learns about the central mystery of his past.
I’m not sure whether he becomes more unreliable as the book progresses, though early on his dissent from the recollections of him at school are suspect. Even Christopher considers that he may have hallucinated some other Japanese soldier into a reunion with Akira in an hour of great need for both. (Why doesn’t he try to follow up and contact Akira’s son after the war?)
The other orphans (both females) are underdeveloped and implausible. Christopher’s behavior toward Sarah at the end of her stay in Shanghai and toward a driver and a KMT lieutenant who has aided him in getting close to the house he seeks are particularly ill-conceived and unlikely, or, at least, are badly executed. The expectations of what Banks can accomplish that are held by the Shanghai Europeans bewildered by the beginning of war are ludicrous, but not implausible. And what Ishiguro writes about the politcal economy of opium seems quite accurate. Although it gets hallucinatory, the background setting is mostly deftly drawn.
(Ishiguro in 2005, photo by Mariusz Kubiki )
Ishiguro’s masterpiece of an emotionally blocked, politically blind “unreliable narrator” is clearly still Remains of the Day. Although Ishiguro has a talent for recreating the 1930s and writes often limpid descriptive prose, I have found his work since Remains disappointing, particularly deficient in character development, which was what was most impressive about Remains.
©2000, 2017, Stephen O. Murray