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The Orphaned Novel and the Comforting Novelist


When We Were Orphans (Faber and Faber, 2000) by Kazuo Ishiguro is an attempt to return to plot and love interest. The Desperado novel is in this case orphaned, as its parents, irony and the deliberate lack of an ending, are nowhere in view. The novelist has come, in his desperate search for novelty, full circle. He is comforting his readers with the peace of the older novel: hope for love and find something to catch at in the end.

At a close look, irony is there all right, since love for Sarah or friendship for Akira, or even maternal, even filial love, are debunked. None is inspiring, none gives pleasure, they are all dry characters in search of a fulfilling suspense. These characters are orphans all right, bereft of feeling and rejoicing in their inner emptiness, parading a susceptibility that will not fool the reader. What has the reader fooled is the actual offer of an ending that solves the mystery of the plot, partly and superficially, but obviously spelt in black on white.

The plot of the novel explicitly covers a span of twenty-eight years (1930-1958), alternately spent in London and Shanghai. Displacement is Ishiguro’s major concern in all his novels. A mother comes to England from Japan with a suicidal daughter (A Pale View of Hills), a Japanese painter feels America stifling Japan right in his own home (An Artist of the Floating World), America also conquers England and its cultural traditions (The Remains of the Day), a pianist feels called to roam the whole wide world and set it right (The Unconsoled). When We Were Orphans deals with displacement in the clearest of terms. Two young boys, one English (Christopher Banks) and one Japanese (Akira) find themselves in Shanghai, the only home they know, and both leave it to set home in the countries their parents came from, England and Japan. While kids, they do not even want to think they might ever have to go elsewhere or be separated. They rely on Shanghai as the realm of peaceful childhood and secure friendship. But Shanghai comes out of the war as a communist territory, time passes and the end of the book finds Akira briefly, leaving him possibly dead, with a wife and daughter waiting for him in Japan, while Christopher Banks, an ex-famous detective now, muses (thinking of London):

This city, in other words, has come to be my home, and I should not mind if I had to live out the rest of my days here. Nevertheless, there are those times when a sort of emptiness fills my hours... 

The plot advances apparently chronologically, following Christopher's life and rise as the best detective of his day, profession which, by 1958, when we leave the book with no desire or need to go back to it (since its mystery is so clearly spelt out), is all but obsolete. The same as for the painter in An Artist of the Floating World, his days of glory have gone for good, and he feels displaced in a world that is not "floating" any longer, a world which will not be set right by detection of crime. A new world, for others, not for the painter or the detective. An alien universe for grandchildren to grow in long after their grandparents have ceased to exist. The whole novel is more about loss of life than of parents. When We Were Orphans is a book about death. Whether it is the death of real characters – Akira, the childhood friend, the father who has run away from his demanding wife with another woman, the mother who paid with her dignity and ultimately her sanity the welfare of her only son, who sits in this novel, thought in hand, and remembers, satisfied all is in good order in his soul, but nothing can ever be changed –, or the death of the very idea of home, it is irrelevant. Whichever we decide its theme is, the text is dry, bitter and decoded. The ending, unhappy as it is, baffles the reader who expected and enigma. Which means the Desperadoes have built a tradition, and Ishiguro is under our own eyes struggling hard to escape its rising mannerism.

The plain story is the following: Christopher Banks, born of British parents, spends his childhood in Shanghai, where his father is employed by a company that makes profits from facilitating the trade with opium to China. His mother fights the addiction of the Chinese to opium and the fact that England is using it in order to maneuver China more easily. We are led in turn to believe that this mother is in love with 'uncle Philip', a man who has dark pacts with the devil (whether the devil is a Chinese war lord who protects the trade with opium or the communists, for whom he first works, then betrays). Actually we learn in the end that it was her husband who deserted her, who felt exhausted by her challenge, could not rise to her standards, briefly he took a lover and fled with her to Hong Kong, dying of typhoid in some obscure place. The mother, on the other hand, has a far more terrible fate. The Chinese war lord kidnaps her and makes her his white wife, whom he humiliates in front of all his guests. She becomes his consenting wife, among other wives, on condition that her son is given enough money to have a carefree life in London. This son keeps thinking that his parents were both kidnapped because of their fight against the opium trade, he becomes a detective precisely because he wants to find them and restore them to the life they deserve. He is sure he can set the world right. The only thing he manages to do is find his mother in a Hong Kong convent, insane and unaware of his presence, and allow her to die and be buried there. This major lead is the backbone of the novel. Once we know the whole truth, which the novelist actually tells us – unbelievable for a Desperado –, there is not much to keep us riveted to the novel. Sarah Hemmings, Jennifer – another orphan, adopted by Christopher, Akira, uncle Philip (alias the 'Yellow Snake', the traitor who turns against the communists and is being hunted for that) are unimportant. Nothing tells us we should place any emotional value or of any other kind on their presence in the plot. They come and go, might as well be absent. The whole story about Christopher trying to run away with Sarah and find love, yet failing because of a nightmarish episode – too strongly reminiscent of the confusion in The Unconsoled, whatever belongs to Christopher's life after childhood, is unimportant. What matters to Ishiguro is the image of the world seen through the eyes of the naive child, who feeds us his memories in an order, at a pace that is maddeningly his own and cannot be rushed. The trick was used by Henry James in What Maisie Knew. Actually, this trick of naivety versus the reader's hungry wisdom is Henry James' weapon in everything he wrote. Ishiguro is feeding on his predecessors in this novel, which many readers call "detective story", although it could not be farther from that. Actually it is a carefully thought out architecture of memories, a story whose bits fit beautifully together in a clear puzzle, whose clear image we see in the end. Desperadoes do not visualise the puzzle so clearly, they hurry out of the text before the reader has had time to ask what this is all about. To use Eliot's lines in Prufrock, "Do not ask what is it, / Let us go and make our visit." Ishiguro is unafraid. He defies his peers, the other Desperado novelists. He can write a true story and feed us the certainty that the text is ended, as good as dead, we need not reread, there is no point in going back to the page. He kills our curiosity for the might have been. In one respect he fails, though: we do get the key, but what do we find? Dry empty heroes, loveless beings, miserable pilgrims, orphans whose lives have deserted them. A lifeless book, with heroes who can hardly be said to look alive. Feeling is dead, but long live the story, all the same. This orphan novel is limp and we can constantly hear in our souls its wooden leg sticking into the sand of emotionlessness. The writer's sensibility, so keen in his other novels, is asleep. His narrative is comforting, but can we go back gently into that good night of mere incident? Was not Stevens, the butler, ten times more endearing precisely because we did not know exactly what was happening to him?

   When We Were Orphans is a carefully built novel, whose backbone is obvious from the very first reading. If read pencil in hand, by a reader careful to remember certain words – mnemotechnic reading applies to Ishiguro more than many, it is a relaxingly clear narrative, whose suspense is present at all times, which invigorates it constantly. The narrative does not excel in psychological analysis or recourse to emotion, so its only grip on the reader is the eagerness it creates in him to find out what exactly is going on. The reader is smart enough, after four previous novels, not to expect a happy ending. He is all the same overwhelmed by the fact that there is an ending at all.

The incidents are related in the first person, in a diary-chronology which is interspersed with the unpredictable order of memory. Everything begins in the summer of 1923, and ends on November 14th, 1958. The place is London, but twice, once in memories, the second time in flesh and blood, the hero returns to his childhood Shanghai. Ishiguro obviously planned his novel minutely. He chose a mysterious, international location, which is described as the homeland of displacement. Only he does not really mention Shanghai until several pages have introduced Christopher Banks to us, by means of an encounter with his school acquaintance, James Osbourne. Every detail is calculated to have a particular effect. Nothing is thrown in at random. Ishiguro does not write here out of the fill of his heart, but of the good discipline of his intellect. Consequently, When We Were Orphans is a dry, cold, mathematical book. As we read along, we feel as if we were doing our homework in math.

We learn a few prerequisites about Christopher in the first chapter, just enough to spur our curiosity. The first time we catch a glimpse of displacement is when Osbourne is described as being "well connected" in a society which Christopher joined very early in his teens. English society appears to him closed and averse to displaced individuals. Christopher is hurt by Osbourne's remark that he was "such an odd bird at school". He remembers a whole ritual of belonging, the efforts he made to "blend in". He did not have a family at all, much less one that could offer him the privilege of nobility. We learn that on the second page, obliquely, in Ishiguro's indirect manner, which is a strong reluctance of calling a spade a spade. He evolves an allusive narrative, which reveals itself only if associated with the reader's good memory.

Besides displacement, which the first chapter introduces from various angles (that of the displaced child himself, that of fellow pupils, that of an older guest who chaperones him at a party, that of Sarah Hemmings – a master of blending in and well connectedness), we also find out about the profession of a detective, the man who is supposed to unmask crime and set the world right. As the end of the book proves, a detective does no such thing, and Christopher Banks is ridiculous in his assumption that he might. But in the first chapter he is all so eager to become one that he can only talk about the halo of his plans for the future, not knowing the ensuing disappointment. This disappointment is more the reader's than the hero's (who ends up old yet faithful to his mission of a detective), even though detectives are no longer the important personages they used to be. The reader is early on in the narrative introduced to the idea that crime must be exposed and terminated, and later on he is to find out that Christopher Bank's parents were kidnapped, that crime made him an orphan. So he thinks most of his life, till he returns to Shanghai to dismantle that horrible crime and put order in his expectations, recapture his life. No such thing happens. The crime that haunted him all his childhood, adolescence and part of his adult life, turns out to have been only half a crime, and even so, one from whom he has benefited, one without which he would never have become the detective he is. His whole world is blown apart. Our breathless hopes of a mystery happily solved are baffled. The writer's irony hits us right at the core of reading, where emotions should have resided (as in The Remains of the Day) but, unfortunately, they have been replaced by intriguing subterfuges. After five successful novels, we can safely state that Ishiguro is not a tender writer, that he prefers precision to tenderness, and architectural coldness (even cruelty) to gentleness versus both hero and reader.

Christopher Bank’s life, from first to last, is a tale of loneliness and dissimilarity. He comes to London from Shanghai, and has to adapt. He climbs to high London society, and, although "well provided for" (money paid by the Chinese war lord in exchange for his mother’s submission), he has to fight for friends he never really makes. The only friend in this novel is the Japanese child Akira, remembered only, and who turns into the enemy when Christopher returns to Shanghai to learn the truth, to free his parents, to set the universe right. Again, Ishiguro does not believe in friendship: his heroes are all solitary figures against a puzzle. Christopher does not even have parents, but this is not new for Ishiguro. One mother brings from Japan a daughter who hangs herself from the ceiling, a son – the butler Stevens – cannot make time to be with his father when he dies, a father – the painter in An Artist of the Floating World – has absolutely nothing in common with, even resents his two daughters, and, at last, a pianist does not even know he has a family (a wife and son, who turn up and leave his life without managing to stir any reaction in him), who expects his parents to join him in vain, because they never turn up, it is as if they had never existed, but for the one tangible proof, their being on the page. The only evidence of whatever could, even remotely, be called love is the fact that everyone was once somebody's little boy (Ishiguro's women are not as convincing as his men, and far more artificial). Whatever love we manage to squeeze out of his pages is a concoction we drink at our own risk.

Unlike novelists of solid realistic stock, Ishiguro is less concerned with creating the illusion of life, and far more with hiding, postponing life from happening. He advances in his stories incident by perfectly contained incident, each being quite short, well rounded and placed in its slot. The forerunner of each well balanced episode is a small word, one we are likely to forget, but, if we do that, we shall never be forgiven – the novelist expects us to remember all his adjectives, demonstrative pronouns, even articles. Ishiguro has no sympathy to spare for the forgetful reader, only the question is: do we at long last feel that the whole has been worth remembering?

Certain sentences, at regular intervals, return to memory and displacement, most often than not combined in one:

...according to my own, quite clear memory, I adapted very ably to the changed realities of my circumstances. (...) Of course, I did miss my parents at times, but I can remember telling myself there would always be other adults I would come to love and trust.

The effect of this combination is a slightly absurd atmosphere, which stresses an emotion (usually that of frustration) without clear reason, just because the narrator happens to remember it that way, singling it out of the years once experienced. The absurd vein is similar to the air of The Unconsoled, which thrives on it. That fourth novel could not exist without the reader’s surrender to the right of the narrator to select his own memories of displacement and rearrange them in a present to which he claims he has no clue, so the author himself can relax and float on the calm sea of the reader's unconditional surrender and acceptance of whatever he is offered. Ishiguro is a miser with logical explanations. Either you guess how incidents connect logically underneath the narrative, or you choose to remember each one separately and experience a vague sensation that there must be a logical connection, but since it is not made obvious, you can easily live with a mere intuition of it. The long and the short of it is that, unless you read Ishiguro pen in hand, there is a huge chance of missing half the book. The novel may look comforting because of its clear sentences and apparently reasonable statements, but the order of memory is a diabolical architecture. The novelist is a craftsman.

Ishiguro is not a lover of landscape at large. He dispatches it in one sentence, but the brevity of the description itself makes it memorable. A slant sunset ray on a restaurant table, a dark night in an unknown street. The departure from Shanghai, however, gets a whole paragraph to itself:

The sky that morning was overcast, the waters around us very muddy. I was standing of the deck of the steamer gazing back towards the harbour, towards the messy shoreline of boats, gangplanks, mud huts, dark wood jetties, behind them the large buildings of the Shanghai Bund, all now fading together into a single blur.

The boy who is dispatched back to England is positive the best detectives are even as he speaks looking thoroughly and professionally for his kidnapped parents. So are we. All the bigger the surprise when the suspense ends and former Uncle Philip, presently the Yellow Snake (the informer), reveals the horrible truth about an adulterous father who left the family and a mother who struck a bargain with a Chinese war lord in order to ensure her child's financial welfare. The message is, ' The world is ugly ', and it makes Ishiguro a dark novelist.

The novel has an attempt at a love story, which is an ironical version of an affair. Nothing happens, unless it is animosity in both man and woman. Incidentally, both Christopher and Sarah are orphans, and there is one more orphan in the book, Christopher's adopted daughter, Jennifer. When We Were Orphans is a mythical time, when the respective heroes still felt their displacement and loneliness, just as Christopher remembers his leaving Shanghai as a child: 

It was this last remark, this notion that I was 'going home', which caused my emotions to get the better of me – for I am certain of this – the first and last time on that voyage. Even then, my tears were more of anger than sorrow. For I had deeply resented the colonel's words. As I saw it, I was bound for a strange land where I did not know a soul, while the city steadily receding before me contained all I knew. Above all, my parents were still there, somewhere beyond that harbour, beyond that imposing skyline of the Bund, and wiping my eyes, I had cast my gaze towards the shore one last time, wondering if even now I might catch sight of my mother – or even my father – running on the quay, waving and shouting for me to return.

As the individuals grow up, their homelessness and parentlessness softens. It is now a Freudian obstacle in the way of their sensibility, but they are not aware their souls are lame. Sarah and Christopher cannot really fall in love with each other, Jennifer finds it difficult to get married and have a family. Not one of the three has a real family of his own. What Christopher is left with is "a sort of emptiness". All three behave in an irritating way, under various circumstances, and manage to antagonize both the other displaced heroes and – more significantly – the reader. Sarah ignores Christopher when he first tries to talk to her. When she wants to ask a favour of him, it is his turn to ignore her and resent her arrogance, which the reader does, too. All characters devised by Ishiguro are more or less irritating, this being a feature of most Desperado heroes. A Pale View of Hills is full of disagreeable females, young and old. An Artist of the Floating World is a tale of grudge and resentment. Stevens the butler astonishes and keeps us at a distance with his ambition of impeccable service, which neglects emotion (love for a father or Miss Kenton). The pianist in The Unconsoled is as disconsolate as all the other characters, who are equally arrogant, insensitive, selfish and at last unconsoled. Christopher is as cold as the rest, and as emotionless. He ruffles the reader's sensibility like a true Desperado hero.

This fifth novel by Ishiguro relies mainly on inaccurate memories, and this multifunctionality of the past is another Desperado feature. Desperadoes feed on ambiguous memories, which turn out in the end to be the opposite of what we inferred. Christopher himself states at one point, about his past, which he has never discussed with anyone before Sarah shares it:

In fact it is even possible I have remembered incorrectly...

The whole book abounds in memories, recollections, uncertainties as to some past incident or word, vague feeling of deja vu yet still unknown. For every few sentences there is one such word. The time of memories and the time of writing keeps changing and the whole text is just quicksands. Uncertainty as to what is really going on is the Desperado way of unfurling the story, which is not otherwise allowed the suspense of past causing the future, of chronological causality. Since we are not offered incidents that connect in a story whose end we might be taught to wait for (twenty centuries of novel-writing have educated the reader in that respect), our appetite for surprise must be fed otherwise. Ishiguro plunges us into powerlessness and feeds us bits of logical sentences, such as Christopher motivating this whole novel by saying, "I rose to the challenge of my responsibilities". His responsibility, it turns out, is to find his parents and thus make sure the world is in good order, no more crimes will menace its logic, people will always have a home and love over their heads. Actually, a war breaks out, individuals are rushed from one unwelcoming ex-home to another (see the war between Chian and Japan, as described in Shanghai), the parents are not only misunderstood but also dead or found far too late. Christopher fails lamentably. Just like all Desperado novels, this one lacks the strutting narrative self-assurance of a Dickens or Galsworthy, the pleasure of the story as such. If a Desperado novelist is fond of anything, then it is of his own confusion and ours as we read. One reason why When We Were Orphans could never be mistaken for a thriller is the fact that it confuses more than a reader who needs clear solutions and a sense of closure can take. Memoryland engulfs us even as we read, and the suspense we do experience as we go along is a mere taunting of our patience with the text, it educates us to expect nothing and enjoy our own irritation at being left empty-handed. Not all novels give. Desperado novels, for a change, feed on our thoughts, taking away more than they actually offer. Does the reader get to share Ishiguro’s creative effort? Dangerous question. Suppose the reader refused to be put to work. What then?

Besides the fact that suspense becomes a linguistical game – we impatiently wait to see which word was significant, crucial for the plot, and if we managed to detect it in time, to expose the novelist, Ishiguro has one more favourite device, which goes hand in hand with displacement: he constantly defamiliarizes. Space changes incessantly, nothing is as it used to, memories are killed by the present, all explanation becomes impossible. He used defamiliarization in all his books, from post-nuclear-bomb Japan to the loss of tradition in post-war England and the absurd contractions of space and time in The Unconsoled. Christopher goes back to Shanghai to find another universe, which keeps growing and blowing up. Actually, The Unconsoled is present in that section of the novel like an after-wave, showing that perhaps the novelist is using the same mood as inspiration, not having found another yet. Christopher is also, just like the pianist, presented as a mock-hero. His whole world is subject to ridicule without his being aware of it. We read those pages with the same feeling we had before, which menaces to render the text predictable. Dangerous trap for a Desperado. Artificiality replaces reality. The reader reads on, while muttering to himself, ' Not good enough '. We shrug our shoulders when, on the last page, the novelist justifies his title thus:

But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.

The novel has officially been orphaned from both parents, love-interest (the couple) and the sense of closure. Ishiguro is trying to reassure his readers that all is well with the written page, nevertheless. His clear sentences, his simple statements ought to be comforting. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the reader needs to finish the book and find his peace. Well, surprise: no peace, as far as Desperadoes are concerned. Just inner turmoil, haunting restlessness and uncertainty. The real orphans of this type of novels are its readers.




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