My rating: 3 of 5 stars
While a mostly unsuccessful experiment, When We Were Orphans is the hinge in Ishiguro’s canon. It synthesizes the four novels that precede it while introducing a new element that leads to the three novels to come. The author himself allows, “It’s not my best book,” but without it, we might not have had the best, at least the best of his later career. This shows the fault in “craft” models of fiction-writing with their rules and ready-made templates, which insist that each work be a polished production like a chair or a table and imply that there is no beauty or merit in an artist’s visible searching after what more there is to do. Ishiguro’s restlessness makes him admirable. He has a consciously limited set of themes and tones—the unlived life, the deluded narrator, the complicit protagonist, the failure of love and family; disappointment, wistfulness, resolution, and confusion—yet he has gone everywhere in time, space, and genre with them. Each one of his books is the same as the others, and no two of his books are alike.
When We Were Orphans takes the unreliable, complicit narrator of the first three novels—along with their political motif: the evils of British and Japanese imperialism—and exposes him to the near-surrealism of The Unconsoled as he journeys from London to wartime Shanghai to investigate the disappearance of his parents and finds the city dissolving around him in more ways than one. Ishiguro confronts his English detective not only with the gritty realism of war and suffering—though he does this too—but also the higher realism of Kafka and Dostoevsky, the realism of modernism, with its investigation into the irrational and unconscious through which experience reaches us in inevitably distorted form.
Yet Ishiguro introduces a new element not overtly present in his earlier work: a concern with literary genre (this is anticipated by The Remains of the Day’s reputed Jeeves revisionism, but I admit butler fiction is not a genre I’m familiar with). The narrator of Orphans is a detective, and it is a detective novel, complete with the perfidious villain’s end-of-the-book exposition of the mystery. In a gesture familiar to readers from the founding European novel, Don Quixote, and the founding literary graphic novel, Watchmen, Ishiguro takes a romance hero and corrodes him in the acid bath of realism, here to make an Edward Said-like political point about the polite English gentleman’s naive and childish dependence on colonial brutality.
This meta-generic interest adds an element of parody to the novel. Orphans is Ishiguro’s most literary novel, almost a postmodern pastiche of several influences. The first half, largely set in London, reads like Conan Doyle dissolving into Jamesian haze—
It took no more than a few days to unravel the mystery of Charles Emery’s death. The matter did not attract publicity on the scale of some of my other investigations, but the deep gratitude of the Emery family—indeed, of the whole community of Shackton—made the case as satisfying as any thus far in my career. I returned to London in a glow of well-being and consequently failed to give much thought to my encounter with Sarah Hemmings in the walled garden on that first day of the investigation. I would not say I forgot entirely her declared intentions regarding the Meredith Foundation dinner, but as I say, I was in a triumphant frame of mind and I suppose I chose not to dwell on such things.
—while the Shanghai-set second half is like Kafka dreaming a Graham Greene thriller:
One of the soldiers by the wall had been signalling urgently, and now the lieutenant began to go across the rubble towards him. But just then the machine-gunner let loose a deafening burst of fire, and when he ceased there was an extended scream coming from beyond the wall. The scream began full-throated, then tapered off into a strange high-pitched whimper. It was an eerie sound and I became quite transfixed listening to it. It was only when the lieutenant came rushing back and pulled me down behind some fallen masonry that I realised there were bullets hitting the wall behind me. The men at the next wall were now firing too, and then the machine-gunner let off another burst. The authority of his weapon seemed to silence all the others, and thereafter, for what felt like an inordinate time, the only sound to be heard came from the wounded man beyond the wall. His 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. This disembodied voice echoed unnervingly around the ruins, but the Chinese soldiers in front of me remained utterly still, their concentration not wavering from what they could see through the wall. 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.
So we have romance—the detective novel, with its hero’s knight-errant quest—defeated in turn by realism (the reality of war and exploitation), modernism (the unreliability of consciousness), and postmodernism (the critical investigation of texts and discourses). Ishiguro will keep the realism and modernism, but the element of postmodern parody, with its slight haughtiness, will drop out of his corpus after this. His three subsequent novels will use the romance elements of science fiction (Never Let Me Go), fantasy (The Buried Giant), and children’s literature (Klara and the Sun) more straightforwardly, as legitimate colors in his palette rather than ideological superstructures to be exposed with Marxian and Freudian analysis, as in Orphans with its infantile Englishman’s oedipal quest in the exploited Orient.
Why do I call Orphans a failed experiment? Because its elements do not cohere. The nightmare journey through the “warren” under Japanese occupation poignantly certifies that our narrator is permanently deranged, but the tidy detective-novel resolution that follows, with its ludicrous racialist pulp-fiction porn scenario, is too flippant an ending for a not-particularly-short novel that had seemed, earlier in the narrative, to solicit at least some genuine sympathy for the characters. It’s as if Kathy H., at the end of Never Let Me Go, started acting like Neo in The Matrix. His later works are much more interesting for their abandonment of such facile postmodern gestures, their experimental commitment to romance/genre elements as fully able to materialize the Ishiguran themes and tones.
As my observations above imply, When We Were Orphans is more for the completist than for the casual reader. If you’re reading Ishiguro’s works in sequence—and his first novels are strong enough to make this a good plan—then its significance in the oeuvre is enough to justify reading it before Never Let Me Go; but if you’re reading his works more in order of merit, then it belongs with The Buried Giant near the bottom of the list as a noble, even Nobel-worthy, failure. Along with The Unconsoled, though, its title is among the best of the group.