'When We Were Orphans': Ishiguro at his fullest power

On Books

September 03, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Kazuo Ishiguro is victim of the dreaded fate of excellent novelists better known for a screen adaptation than for their real work. His albatross is "The Remains of the Day." Unlike many of his fellow sufferers (Michael Ondaatje and his "The English Patient" high among them), Ishiguro at least benefits from a first-rate movie.

Still, films aren't novels. As serious an art form as film can be, it's different. Even at its finest potential it cannot achieve the richness, subtlety and substance of a truly accomplished novel. Ishiguro is a truly accomplished novelist. Were there any doubt, it now would be dispelled by "When We Were Orphans" (Knopf, 338 pages, $25).

Ishiguro is 45 years old and lives in England, where he was taken by his Japanese family when he was 5. This is his fifth novel. "The Remains of the Day" won the Booker Prize, Britain's most distinguished literary award.

"Orphans" begins, "It was the summer of 1923, the summer I came down from Cambridge." Its voice quickly establishes itself as impeccably Edwardian -- that very civilized, confessorial but detached expression of the best of English books of the best of those days. It ends in the autumn of 1958. Its narrator and central character, Christopher Banks, is by then retired from a career as a presumably eminent private detective. "These are those times," he sighs, "when a sort of emptiness fills my hours."

The life Banks narrates begins near the beginning of the 20th century in Shanghai. His father was an executive with a large British shipping and trading firm. His mother was fierce campaigner against opium. The firm his father worked for, and which owned the house of his rather idealized childhood, was deeply in the business of wholesale importation of opium into China from huge British colonial poppy holdings in India.

From his earliest memories, Christopher -- known in childhood as Puffin -- wanted to be a detective. The story of his youth, of his father's disappearance -- presumably a kidnapping -- and then that of his mother unfolds slowly. From age 9, he is brought up by an aunt in England, goes to first-rate schools, grows successful. In 1937, at the top of his craft, he goes to Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents' disappearances --- and of his life.

This intricate story is told in deftly connected remembrances -- the adult searching through the tainted, scarred, calloused-over memories of the child and the young man. Snippets of overheard disputes between his parents are vaguely recalled. His impressions of schoolmates' responses to him don't jibe with theirs.

Gradually, it becomes clear that Banks is not a reliable narrator. Is that because of failure of memory, evasion of self-examination, psychological damage or devious intent? That is never made totally certain.

As that unreliability becomes familiar and, indeed, endearing, it also becomes gradually more intense and significant -- growing to a sort of crescendo in the last quarter of the book, where almost surreal, Kafkaesque trials and horrors and revelations capture the story and Banks' life.

Early in the book, he tells the reader of his sense of purpose, and his destiny. "I was already beginning to appreciate for the first time the scale of responsibility that befalls a detective with any sort of renown. ... The rooting out of evil in its most devious forms, often when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking. ... How much it means to people ... to be cleansed of such encroaching wickedness."

The midpoint of the book is in the spring of 1937, as anxieties about war sweep Europe and Asia: "Knowledgeable people liken our civilisation to a haystack in which matches are hurled."

Banks arrives in Shanghai in September 1937. The Japanese are at war with China, which is still torn by civil war between Chiang Kai-shek's government and communist revolutionaries. Japanese naval artillery shells are screaming over the rooftops of the "International Settlement" -- the European treaty-port enclave in which Banks spent his childhood. Its expatriate society seems impervious and almost indifferent.

The passion he devotes to that investigation, and to his craft, make the quest seem apocalyptic. There's a strong suggestion that vast evil, the horrors of global war, somehow can be averted if only his efforts can succeed.

In Shanghai, "the case" becomes ever more mysterious. The sense is that the offenses against his parents stand for the foreign community's -- the colonial world's -- exploitation and neglect of "the suffering of their Chinese neighbors across the canal."

Ishiguro (in Japanese, the name means "black rock") is astonishingly artful in controlling the reader's -- anyway, this reader's -- awareness. The narrative withholding of disclosure that on its face should seem trivially manipulative is done with almost magical deftness.

So much for technique, which I found unblemished. But the book is not about technique. Nor is it, in any orthodox sense, a detective story. Banks' ostensibly celebrated investigative talents and procedures are told of, but never shown. After weeks in Shanghai, the revelations of truth he believed he had been seeking come to him almost in spite of his efforts. They are bitter -- and brutally unwanted.

"When We Were Orphans" is about being orphaned: lost, dislocated. It is an exploration of the mystery of self-awareness. Beyond that, it is about human cruelty, the smallness of civilization, about selfishness, greed and -- far worse -- indifference, moral laziness.

Finally, however, it is about goodness. About genuine -- if elusive -- love, about civility and innate decencies and courage. It is, thus, about redemption.

And it's a swift, compelling, delightful, moving and irresistible thing to read.

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