Saturday, August 20, 2011

Kazuo Ishiguro: When We Were Orphans (2000)

And this isn't how you do it.

I'm on record as having hated The Unconsoled, Ishiguro's previous book, but still I had high hopes for this one.  I seemed to remember it having gotten good reviews, and it came highly recommended by at least one person whose opinion I quite respect.  And:  I knew that with this book Ishiguro, for the first but not last time, had decided to flirt with genre fiction.  In this case, the detective story.

The fact that The Unconsoled had been such a dismal misstep didn't concern me:  I was entirely prepared to see it as the kind of experiment that, while not successful in itself, paved the way for future successes. Well.

At first that's precisely what When We Were Orphans felt like to me:  the kind of achievement that pre-Unconsoled Ishiguro wouldn't have been able to pull off.  From the start it's clear that we're, yet again, dealing with an unreliable narrator - a narrator whose self-deceptions it's our challenge to unravel.  But because of the monstrously unmoored quality of the previous novel it's not clear quite what our basis for judging the narrator of this novel is:  what is the nature of reality, of normality, in When We Were Orphans?  We need to know this to know how far his narrator, Christopher Banks, deviates from it.  In other words, the previous book casts a shadow of uncertainty over this one, and it's to this work's benefit, at least at first:  there's the sense that the book could go off in unexpected directions at any moment.  And since the plot here is quite straightforward and coherent, that sense of uncertainty is a good thing.  It provides a frisson of subtextual suspense that the first three books didn't have.

ButWhen We Were Orphans falls apart in the second half, precisely when it should be at its best. 

Banks is a self-styled Sherlock Holmes-type detective between the wars.  He was born and partly raised in Shanghai, but sent home to England as a boy when both his parents were kidnapped.  The kidnapping was never solved, and now as an adult, in 1937, he decides it's time to go back to Shanghai and solve their disappearance.  This, of course, brings him back to Shanghai just as the Japanese are invading China, giving Banks and the reader a front-row seat for this historical tragedy.   Banks's connection to it is personal, not just because he was born in Shanghai, but because his best friend as a child was a Japanese boy who lived next door to him.

There's a lot of potential here for social-historical critique, contrasting the International Settlement of which Banks is a product with the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens, exploring the distance between the behavior of the Japanese army in the '30s and Banks's knowledge of his friend in the '10s, etc.  And Ishiguro does pursue some of this.  But it's largely undercut by what he's trying to do with his narrator's self-deception.

Simply put, Banks is so obsessed with his parents' disappearance that he's completely unable to see past it to what's going on in Shanghai when he returns.  The second half is dominated by a long set piece in which Banks ventures outside the International Settlement in search of a kidnappers' safe-house where he thinks his parents are being held.  The invasion is in full swing, with much of the city lying in ruins and the dead and dying filling the streets, and all of this is described to us, but Banks doesn't seem to register it (despite the fact that he's doing the describing).  All he can think about is locating the safe-house; the battle and its casualties are mere annoyances to him, obstacles.  At one point he stumbles across a Chinese army outpost and demands of an English-speaking officer that he provide men to help him in his wild-goose chase, despite the fact that every last soldier is needed to defend the city.

It's pretty clear that what Ishiguro is doing here is satirizing the solipsism of empire, the cluelessness of Europeans in Asia who thought the world revolved around them.  And that's certainly a thing worthy of satire.  But this didn't work for me as satire - Banks's self-delusion is just too hard to believe.  Even the most oblivious expat would have noticed the bombs going off next to him.  It's clumsy.

And it's undercut by the way Ishiguro has other characters interact with Banks.  Banks demanding that the Chinese officer provide men is satire - we immediately see Banks as the white imperialist ordering other races to serve him instead of themselves.  But why does Ishiguro have the officer comply?  If this is part of the satire it's even less effective.  And, curiously, the scenes in which the officer complies don't feel like satire - the officer seems to have heard of Banks's parents' kidnapping, and seems more than willing to lead him around the city for hours.  It's one thing to posit, as part of the satire, subject peoples trying to please their colonial masters, but this is a bit heavy-handed...

And why do all the foreigners in Shanghai greet Banks with the assumption that he's going to somehow defuse the tension between China and Japan?  Several times people refer to the great work that he's there to carry out, and oh yes, he's also going to solve his parents' case - and why does everybody know about that, too?  Especially when it's revealed at the end what really happened to them, it hardly seems the kind of thing that would still be on the foreign community's mind twenty years later, while bombs are going off all around them.

The only way to explain much of the book is to conclude that Banks is not just in a state of denial about certain things, like the narrators of Ishiguro's first three books, but outright delusional - in this sense the resonances with The Unconsoled become dismaying as the book goes on, because the way things just don't add up means either that the narrator is nuts (which the book doesn't seem to support) or the world is...

So, to sum up.  As a satire of British imperialism this is weak, and as a depiction in fiction of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai it's distracted.  On both counts that's a shame, because there's a deeply coruscating novel to be written about the foreign community in Shanghai at this time - it's a rich subject. 

Meanwhile, as an examination of a self-deluding character it falls short of the achievements of Ishiguro's first three books, because it's impossible in the end to figure out exactly how Banks is deluding himself.  (For about a hundred and fifty pages in the middle of the book I had an entire alternate scenario worked out in which we learned in the end that Banks was actually ethnically Chinese or Japanese and had been adopted by white parents and raised in the English way - that would have explained a lot of the odd expectations people seemed to have of him, as well as a number of other details - and I think I would have liked that book better!)

Perhaps worst of all, as a detective novel it's a complete failure.  Now, I get that Ishiguro wasn't trying to write a straight detective novel:  rather, it's an Ishiguro novel with a main character who happens to be a detective.  Nevertheless I think Ishiguro is playing with the conventions of the detective novel - he gives us a mystery, puts a detective there to solve it, and in the end he does provide a solution to the mystery.  But the solution is simply ridiculous, and the detective does so little detecting that it's impossible to believe that he's the celebrated sleuth that everybody else in the novel seems to admit he is. 

Yeah.  I'm afraid I just don't get this one.  I still have two by Ishiguro to go - I hope he gets better.