- When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber, 313 pp, £16.99, April 2000, ISBN 0 571 20384 1
China was a surprise to Auden and Isherwood – it reminded them of Surrey. Faber had commissioned them to write a travel book about the Far East early in the summer of 1937. The Japanese invaded northern China in July, capturing Peking; by August the troops had reached Shanghai and the itinerary of the book was decided. With many foreign correspondents already in Spain, Auden was confident that in China ‘we’ll have a war all of our very own.’ But Journey to a War describes how the fighting eluded them – they went to places they had been told were on the front line, but nothing was ever happening when they got there – and how they ended up in Shanghai. The freedoms of the treaty port were disappointing: they were bored by the endless receptions, garden parties and cold buffets. Isherwood came to realise that the ‘appalling atmosphere of suburban Surrey’ masked dissipation:
You can buy an electric razor, or a French dinner, or a well-cut suit. You can dance at the Tower Restaurant on the roof of the Cathay Hotel ... If you want girls, or boys, you can have them, at all prices, in the bath-houses and the brothels. If you want opium you can smoke it in the best company, served on a tray, like afternoon tea.
While the buildings along the waterfront ‘present, impressively, the façade of a great city’, Isherwood saw that this was indeed ‘only a façade’, but it’s one that Christopher Banks, the young English detective who is the starchy narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, can’t see behind. He remembers leaving Shanghai as a boy with the discomfiting feeling that the city might never reveal the mystery of his mother and father’s strange disappearance: ‘my parents were still there, somewhere beyond that harbour, beyond that imposing skyline.’
There has always been a sense of concealment in Ishiguro’s work and a suggestion of uncertainty and failure. The early novels are restrained accounts of the hidden truths and guilty secrets of characters who have tried to forget their roles in Japan’s imperial past. Etsuko, the narrator of A Pale View of Hills, has lived an ordered, solitary life in the English countryside since, as she puts it, her daughter Keiko’s ‘leaving home’. Only by hints and suggestions do we discover that Keiko committed suicide. Etsuko’s other daughter, Niki, comes to visit and Etsuko begins to recall the difficulties of her life in postwar Nagasaki and the unhappy marriage that made her leave Japan. The split from her husband is not explained – ‘that is by the way’ – and much of the story lies in what Etsuko cannot say or chooses to ignore. The visit is fraught: Niki resents her mother’s fantasies, the fictions that she has constructed in order to cope.
Masuji Ono, the narrator of An Artist of the Floating World, is more down-to-earth than Etsuko, but no more trustworthy. In this intimate and beautifully paced book he speaks to us directly, but there are similar tricks of memory. Ono can’t make up his mind about a friend’s awkward admission, for example: did he ‘really say all this to me that afternoon? Perhaps I am getting his words confused.’ Yet Ishiguro never quite lets him bury the shame of his own past. In the 1930s he had subscribed to his country’s rampant imperialism in a series of paintings that were used as propaganda. The memory of them now dogs him. There have been turbulent changes in Japan since the turn to capitalism after the war and his daughter thinks that an offer of marriage made to her may have been withdrawn because of her father’s art, though she tries not to let her suspicion show. When another round of marriage negotiations begins, Ono is aware that this time his prospective son-in-law has hired private detectives to investigate his past and decides to fend them off. We aren’t given any details of their investigation, but like a detective novel An Artist of the Floating World depends on traces – the traces that Ono has left and that he tries to conceal.
When We Were Orphans is a detective novel set in London and Shanghai in the years leading up to the Sino-Japanese War. It moves between Banks’s recollections of different periods in his life: his childhood in Shanghai where his father worked for an English trading firm; his parents’ disappearance; the loneliness of ‘going home’ to England; adolescence in an airless public school; Cambridge; his glittering success as a detective (caught up in the whirl of fashionable society, he is toasted as ‘the most brilliant investigative mind in England’); his adoption of a young girl; and finally his journey back to Shanghai after the Japanese invasion, in the hope of tracking down the criminals involved in the novel’s central mystery.
The only constant in Banks’s life is his aspiration ‘to be a “Sherlock” ’ and this novel seems to return us to the Shanghai of Auden and Isherwood and to the fictional worlds of the old-fashioned detectives they admired. Isherwood liked the Sherlock Holmes stories because of the character’s ‘peculiar kind of madness’; he read them for the ‘insanity of the chase’. Holmes doesn’t know whether the earth goes round the sun, or vice versa, but he can tell which part of London you have been walking through by the nature of the mud on your trousers: he has the sleuth’s ‘exasperating brilliant intuition’, as Auden put it. Where Holmes is charming and unconventional, Banks is frustrating and predictable. He is also rather irritating: ‘I had always understood, of course, that the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.’ But these ‘devious forms’ are never revealed and When We Were Orphans doesn’t work as a detective novel. Banks’s stilted narrative relies on the mystery of the unaccountable and the fear of the unexplained, but the danger never really becomes threatening: there is very little evil in the novel and not even much nastiness.
Ishighuro is not interested in the ins and outs of the detective’s job, and solves the problem of describing his hero’s investigations by ignoring them: the ‘Mannering case’, the ‘Roger Parker case’ and the ‘Trevor Richardson affair’ are all alluded to and then dropped. When a corpse finally turns up in the ‘Studley Grange business’, Banks soon dispels any feeling of menace: ‘It took no more than a few days to unravel the mystery of Charles Emery’s death.’ Hardly any effort is made to keep the reader in suspense. Banks manages to find out that his father was in trouble before his disappearance: the wholesale merchant he worked for handled opium as well as tea. This doesn’t come as a surprise; the bad character of Harold Anderson, his father’s boss, had been telegraphed early on: ‘that chap always gave me an uneasy feeling. Something fishy about him. There was something fishy about the whole damn business.’ Similarly, we are warned that there is ‘something definitely odd about Uncle Philip’, an old friend of the family who comes to visit Banks’s mother after her husband’s disappearance, and before she herself goes missing. Philip is there when Wang Ku – a shady warlord involved in the opium racket and an unwelcome guest – arrives and greets him warmly. The question of Philip’s complicity arises – ‘How fond I was of Uncle Philip! And is there any real reason to suppose he was not genuinely fond of me?’ – but is almost immediately settled: ‘I got the distinct impression that ... Uncle Philip was not on “our side”; that the intimacy he shared with the plump Chinese man was greater than the one he shared with us.’
Banks finds that the clues to his parents’ whereabouts are illusory; but a series of erroneous deductions brings him to the Cathay Hotel. Like Isherwood, he finds the atmosphere of the hotel stifling; and suspects in any case that his parents are far from the safety of the International Settlement. Worried that they have been trapped by the fighting, he sets out for the Chinese-administered surrounding area, in the hope that he can find them and bring them out. The fighting is clumsily described. Banks comes across a Japanese soldier injured by machine-gun fire, whose
high-pitched whimpers continued for several moments, then he began to shout something in Japanese over and over; every now and again the voice would rise to a frantic shriek, then die away again to a whimper ... Suddenly the machine-gunner turned and vomited on the ground beside him, before immediately turning back to the wire-decked hole in front. From the way he did this, it was not easy to tell if his sickness had to do with nerves, the sounds of the dying man, or simply some stomach complaint.
In its attempt to present Banks as an innocent solipsist – ‘We had been crouching down on our knees, and I noticed my light flannel suit was now almost entirely covered in dust and grime,’ he complains at the scene of battle – Ishiguro’s prose tends to self-parody. J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novels, Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, give much more effective accounts of wartime Shanghai: their sense of place is more vivid, and the ways in which the war dims ‘the brightest lightbulb in the Pacific’ are less contrived.
Banks’s search for his parents is slowed down by the appearance of Sarah Hemmings, an old flame from home now living in Shanghai, who wants to make a new life for herself: ‘Go with me to Macao ... We can decide after that where to go next ... we could go to South America, run away like thieves in the night.’ The possibility of escaping his responsibilities gives Banks ‘an almost tangible sense of relief’. Sarah, like Banks and his adopted daughter, is an orphan, and is sure that ‘the three of us, we could be, well, a little family, just like any other family.’ Banks, however, is coy and panicky and he never leaves for Macao. It’s all rather tame. Banks is carefully shown to be unworldly – holding hands with Sarah, he lets out an ‘awkward giggle’. But the description of the first kiss in Ishiguro’s fiction doesn’t seem simple or direct, so much as lazy: ‘She carefully put down her cigarette holder and stood up. Then we were kissing – just like, I suppose, a couple on the cinema screen.’
The novel has its quiet successes. The hand-me-down conventions of detective fiction are shown to be too neat: brilliant feats of detection don’t work in a wider, messier world. And there are delicate comic details: Banks sees ‘refined ladies at society gatherings giving the most peremptory pushes’ to get people out of their way. Ishiguro writes well about the stiff proprieties of the wealthy expatriate milieu – and the mild rebellions. Sarah maintains that she ‘won’t do what I’ve seen so many girls do. I won’t waste all my love, all my energy, all my intellect ... on some useless man who devotes himself to golf or to selling bonds in the City.’
Sarah’s ambitions are punctured, however; and when Banks solves the mystery of his parents’ disappearance at last, his hopes that the case would become ‘a triumphant memory’ are confounded. (The solution to the mystery, like so much in this uneven novel, is an odd mixture of the sensational and the banal.) Banks has travelled the world in order to find out how he came to be an orphan, leaving his own daughter back in England without a parent. He has lacked insight; but so does Jennifer: ‘I was upset. But I’m not anymore. You have to look forward in life.’ Ishiguro smuggles this line into the novel from A Pale View of Hills – Etsuko has a friend who always tells her ‘how important it is to keep looking forward. And she’s right.’ A Pale View of Hills shows that she’s wrong, and insists on how serious Etsuko’s self-deception proves to be for her children. Banks’s mistakes, on the other hand, aren’t shown to have had consequences. His eventual apology to his daughter is flat: ‘I should have done more for you, Jenny. I’m sorry ... When you were growing up. I should have been there with you more.’ It’s not much of a revelation. Banks sounds just like the suburban stockbroker who was too busy playing golf to have time for the kids.