MEMORY AND DESTINY – February 2007

When We Were Orphans,

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Reviewed by Rima Walker

picture3Christopher Banks, a famous English detective, spent his childhood in Shanghai before the Sino-Japanese War where his father worked for a firm dealing in the opium trade while his mother was actively against it. One day his father doesn’t come home, and, not long after, his mother disappears when Christopher is out with a family friend, Uncle Philip, who plays a great part in his future. When neither parent is found, young Christopher is sent to live in England. As an adult, Christopher goes in search of parents he ardently believes are still alive after so many years, making it his raison d’etre. If childhood experience impacts destiny, then Christopher’s obsession with finding his parents has made him a great detective.

But this is not really a detective story, for we learn nothing of Christopher’s cases. Nor is it a mystery story although mysteries abound right up to the novel’s end. Formal in speech and manner, disconnected from others, shunning emotional personal relationships as he slowly moves towards an answer to his personal mystery, Christopher tells his story mostly through memories of his idyllic childhood. Are his memories reliable? Does he remember accurately, or is he in denial? The reader is not certain since many of Christopher’s memories are called into questions by revelations from others. For example, while an old school friend recalls him as an “odd bird”, Christopher believes he fit right in and was just one of the boys.

Many scenes throw light on Christopher’s character, and many are quite bizarre. He returns to Shanghai and visits his old home, now owned by a Chinese family who offer him his home back. He takes it as his due, insensitively talking about alterations he will make. Later he meets Sara, a woman he had been attracted to, now married to an older English peer. Though there is never talk of love between them, Christopher decides to run away with her to Macao but instead follows a lead to find his parents. In chasing down clues, Christopher meets Akira, his childhood Japanese friend, badly wounded but deemed a traitor by his commanding officer. Christopher fails to help him.

As the mysteries quickly unfold at the end of the book, Christopher learns the falsity of his memories and the betrayals of family, friends and protectors. He has lived compulsively in the past in search of his parents and thus has given up a life in the present and, with it, real relationships, experiences, and love. This book is about loss and a search for identity where the impact of the past based on false memory caused self-delusion.  Is Christopher an orphan or does he have living parents? Is he really English or is he Shanghainese? Can he love another person or is he so detached from everything except his search that he becomes cold and uncaring?

As in all of his previous books, Ishiguro is in sound control of his writing style.  Even in the most surreal instances, the language flows smoothly, calmly, unemotionally, revealing a single-minded character solely directed towards one goal. Ishiguro’s novels make fascinating reading. Perhaps some stem from his own childhood upheaval, since he was born in Japan and at an early age was taken to England where he grew up. He often writes about Japanese characters and Japan with great historic detail, but whether his characters are Japanese or English, he continues his themes of identity, memory, loss, betrayal, and war. Fortunately the library has many of his books including his most famous, The Remains of the Day. ~