when we were orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is one of my favourite novels for its bittersweet depiction of the growing realisation that the main character has wasted his life. This other novel has the same thread of backward perspectives and of missed opportunities, however the main character (Banks) is of a very different nature. The way When we were orphans is written, one starts thinking this is all about an English detective trying to uncover the truth behind a very personal  tragedy, the disappearance of both his parents in Shanghai when he was a child. But progressively the narrative gets fractured and incoherent and we progressively doubt the author’s story, then his sanity. By the end of the book, it is just impossible to sift reality from imagination, daydreaming from life accomplishments. For instance, Banks presents himself as a detective with a certain degree of fame in London circles. However, there is no description whatsoever of his methods or of specific cases. The closest to a description is a child murder (and worse?) where a local constable pleads for the detective to hit at the heart of evil, in a completely incoherent discourse. The storytelling qualities of Ishiguro are so perfect that the character remains a mystery till the end. It is not even sure that he has at all left the acting as a detective he used to indulge in with his Japanese neighbour in Shanghai! The most disturbing section occurs when he revisits Shanghai at the time of the Japanese invasion and thinks he can link his parents’ disappearance with the said invasion and solve both of them at once. It is only when he enters a battle zone in the slums of the city that reality seems to reassert itself, but even then the reunification of Banks and the Japanese friend from his childhood is so unrealistic that the most likely interpretation is that Banks is in a permanent denial and that the Japanese officer he rescued plays the game to stay alive. Still, the story is told in such a way that one can never be sure of any of these interpretations and this is what makes it such a great book, more complex than The Remains of the Day in its construction, if less compelling because of the unfocussed nature of most characters, which we can never grasp hard enough…

4 Responses to “when we were orphans”

  1. By the way, I also -strongly- recommend Nocturnes: Five Stories Of Music And Nightfall!!!!!

  2. I am a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro (A Pale View Of Hills, The Remains Of The Day) but was a bit disappointed by When We Were Orphans. I had the feeling that the last part of the book was just a draft and that it should have been reworked. Your comments are very interesting though, makes me feel like reading it again.

    • Merci, Pierre! I see this book more as a major literary experiment than a novel where you can share something with the characters, as in The Remains of the Day. Hence more distanciation (better than the raw translation detachment!) between the reader and the story. I would analyse the second part as Banks getting more delusional in his remembrance of the events. (Even before the day in the battlefield, the visit to his earlier home sounds (rings?) false, the deference of the Chinese owners being somewhat caricaturesque.) I will certainly keep the other novels on the “to read” list and wonder why I did not pursue them more strongly after the experience of The Remains of the Day!

  3. Thanks for telling about this.

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