In his first two novels, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), Kazuo Ishiguro carried off some real storytelling magic, through the way his narrators’ subtle, and often unconscious self-revelations would turn the story totally on its head. His third, The Remains of the Day (1989), I found less effective in this respect, but it still managed to tell a compelling tale full of subtlety, understatement and implication. Perhaps, then, I had too-high hopes for his 2000 novel, When We Were Orphans.
Its narrator is Christopher Banks, a private detective who was born and spent his early childhood with his parents in pre-war Shanghai, until they disappeared (presumed kidnapped) and he was shipped off to England. Ishiguro has him come across as being straight out of a cliched detective novel. He carries a large magnifying glass, is known for his success with ‘the Mannering case’, is deferred to by the police even in murder investigations, and is internationally regarded as a celebrity. Right from the start, I thought this was either a jokey pastiche of some sort of sub-Agatha Christie pulp detective novel, or (more likely, I thought) Banks is a self-deluding fantasist.
The latter became more likely as, when he returns to Shanghai to try to track down his parents, he seems to (a) think they will still be in the same place (and alive) after eighteen years, and (b) considers the solution of this case as an important part of staving off the encroaching world war. What makes it all even more bizarre is that everyone else treats his case with the same importance. Some Chinese soldiers, for instance, are prepared to give up defending the front in the middle of a war to escort him to the (ruined) house where he assumes his parents are being held!
I was, at every moment, expecting some hint from Ishiguro that his narrator was either insane or still a child, daydreaming the whole novel. But it appears he was quite serious throughout. In fact, there were no revelations at all. Was the novel a satire of detective fiction, then? If so, it’s not a very good one, as the only thing it satirises is a very outdated idea of the consulting detective as superhero, something that doesn’t exist in modern detective fiction at all, where the flawed hero is de rigeur. But also the novel seems to be trying to make a serious emotional or thematic point, which it couldn’t hope to succeed if it was nothing but a light-hearted fun-poking exercise.
As I say, perhaps it was my expectations of the novel, coming from my real enjoyment of Ishiguro’s first two, which made it such a disappointment? I don’t think so. Anything genuinely worthwhile about the novel would still come through, even if I was expecting it to be something else.