Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro's fifth effort, When We Were Orphans, promises to use the mystery genre to explore deeper, universal questions about life (a bit like Chabon's The Final Solution, I suppose).  I think it falls short in important ways, but it is still touching and insightful.  I don't think I can explain what I mean without discussing important plot elements, so keep reading at your peril.

The book is narrated by an Englishman who spent his early years in Shanghai, where his father worked for a trading company and his mother organized opposition to the opium trade (a trade his father's company profited from).  At some point his father went missing, and not too long after his mother, too, disappeared.  The narrator was packed off to England, where he attended prestigious schools and developed a career as a detective in the mold of Sherlock Holmes.

But as the '30s progress, the world begins to teeter on the precipice of war and chaos, and in 1937 the narrator returns to Shanghai just as the Japanese are advancing on the city.  He is welcomed into high society in Shanghai, and at a ball he gives a little speech about how he is going to attempt to set things right.  (He returns to Shanghai in an attempt to find his parents.  In a bizarre conflation that is never squarely addressed, he seems to think that finding his parents will resolve the broader conflicts roiling Asia, hence the speech.)

At this point I should describe what I see as the main strategy that Ishiguro pursues in When We Were Orphans.  The book is narrated in several chronological segments, so that at each point the narrator is recounting the events that have occurred up to that point, while remaining ignorant of the events that will transpire in the future segments.  In the early segments, the narrator is idealistic, ambitious, and naïve.  The story is a bit of a fantasy, with the narrator fitting into the easy role of a renowned detective, untroubled by questions of politics, privilege, etc.  (Although even the early segments contain some gestures toward these matters.)  Over the course of the book, the narrator "grows up" — he sees the way that the Chinese are treated as almost sub-humans compared to the Europeans in Shanghai, he witnesses all manner of brutality, he is able to acknowledge painful facts like the attempted suicide of his adopted daughter.  In other words, he loses his innocence, an innocence his parents went to great lengths to protect.

The book deals sensitively with several ideas that I find quite compelling, in particular the difficulty of achieving a sense of self-worth in a world where we feel powerless against the forces that dictate our fates.  So why do I say it falls short?  Ishiguro establishes a gap between the narrator's "official" storyline and the world as we (the readers) know it to be, but he doesn't navigate that gap very well.  All too often, the narrator's blinkered view of reality is accepted by other characters, and while he increasingly acknowledges a dark, disturbing reality, the book's underlying story is still infected with childish fantasies.  The narrator gets his comeuppance, but in a rather crude way that feels unnaturally appended to the story.

Anyway I don't mean to be too dismissive, Ishiguro got a lot of things right, and the book was hard to put down.  But the story doesn't quite come together, it never quite becomes the book it could have been.


Post a Comment

<< Home