When We Were Orphans
(Faber & Faber; 2000)
The book sets itself up as a mannered English detective novel, with the protagonist (Christopher Banks) as an older, educated voice reviewing his childhood in Shanghai. He takes himself very seriously, and the prose is always measured and careful, controlled.
Ishiguro also wrote The Remains of the Day, and likewise many will find it stifling. L. read it at got annoyed at the way this older voice was always apologising or justifying or condescending to the actions and thoughts of the child.
Still, definitely not a totally self-aware character, and some of the effect is to deliberately tell us something about the older character by the way he narrates the younger.
If you’re looking for places to exclaim, “Holmes, that’s brilliant,” at the deductive prowess of someone described in the book as a celebrated detective, it doesn’t really happen. But somehow you don’t seem to notice because of all the tangents describing people and places.
There’s also the (seemingly) central mystery to carry you along. Gradually you realise that the persona’s parents both disappeared, and this is the big case he’s setting himself up to solve.
Ishiguro doesn’t let him (or us) just get on with solving it though – there are other people and issues distracting him. Still, it does appear that finally he’s about to crack it.
Up til now you may have just thought this was an OK novel in terms of presenting characters and something of the nature of how life unfolds, often without our control. More than a mere detective novel, but we’ll take that too.
Then the whole thing just departs – and makes it, in my opinion, a stand out book. If you haven’t read it yet and you want to get the effect, don’t read on.
He goes back to Shanghai, but there is invasion/civil war in China. The Europeans are still there in their safe section, while the Kuo-min-tang are putting up the only resistance to Japanese invasion. Banks is suitably disgusted by the way the Europeans callously enjoy their dance parties while bombs are landing on the populace around them. They ignore any responsibility or compassion.
Meanwhile, he’s getting closer to solving the case! He thinks he may have found where his parents are hidden, and sets out to find them. This is complicated by a romantic sub-plot, but more so by the fact that this house is behind the battle line. The narration, along with the narrator, becomes more and more fevered and dreamlike/nightmarish. We are wanting him to solve this case ‘against a backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China’, but (unlike the context of a thousand other novels set in violent times) the invasion refuses to remain a backdrop. Rather inconveniently for our hero and us, minor characters keep getting in the way, can’t they just go off and be dealt with and let us/him get on with it. Don’t they realise how important this is – this is his big case! The central plotline of the book. But while we agree with him, we get increasingly uncomfortable with the way he forces Chinese characters – still subservient to Europeans – to risk (and lose) their lives to enable him to fulfil his (our) quest.
By the time he finally gets to the house, THE house, where he can be reunited with his long lost parents, the house has been recently shelled. Instead of finding his parents, he finds a very recently injured and orphaned girl with the corpses of her parents. The irony is thick, as we can’t feel sorry for him in the light of what’s just happened in this house, and doubtless in a thousand others. He loses it, and starts trying to comfort the girl, “Don’t worry, I’m a celebrated detective, I can solve this crime.” He insanely pulls out his magnifying glass and starts looking for clues. This is brutally effective farce.
But this is what we do. Real people and suffering in real life serve as a mere ‘background’ for the dramas of our own lives. I remember a med student coming back from working overseas with some desperately poor, but the way she narrated it, they were merely interesting experiences. It was a novel holiday.
Likewise, for us it was a novel thing to hear her relate her experiences.
Ishiguro, for my money, really captures something of our British Raj approach to the darkies (or whoever), and the drippingly unconscious condescension even when we’re speaking well of them.
A very clever way to use a convention to make such a powerful statement.
He does solve the mystery later, but by this time we’re all a bit numb, and it’s all much more in perspective.
And very strong that what we’re getting into perspective is something that in the west would be something any individual could use to claim utter precedence on sympathy – the disappearance of their parents when they were only a child.
We were interested in what happened to them, and we wanted Banks to find them, but, like him, by the time we do we don’t really care nearly as much. We know it’s not that important. Or if it is, we’re just ignoring a whole heap of much more important things constantly, merely because they happen to poor people.