Finished reading the second of the three books my aged father gifted me for my birthday this August, and as someone who has read Kazuo Ishiguro, I have to say it is completely out of character with anything he has written before.
I could tell from the book’s title itself, When We Were Orphans that this was once again the result of PR agency idiot bosses meddling in publishing. Boy, do they muck around?! I told myself to read it anyway and not to prejudge, which I usually tend to not do. Besides, the blurb at the back of the book told me that this was about a character, Christopher Banks, now a detective in London, searching for his parents in Shanghai way back in the 1930s, and so I thought there might at least be some great descriptions of what the city was like during the conflict with the Japanese. After all, Nobel laureate Ishiguro is superb at conjuring the atmosphere, mood and times of certain periods in a country’s past, especially Japan’s.
Before you think When We Were Orphans, published by Faber & Faber, is a detective novel, let me tell you about the dramatis personae in this book that completely lacks any drama. The protagonist, also a detective, Christopher Banks, his school friends, Sarah Hemmings, a lady about town and her husband, Cecil Medhurst, his childhood friend from Shanghai, Akira, who is Japanese, of course, Uncle Philip, and Banks’ lost parents are the main characters of the story. The story itself is of Banks searching for his lost parents in Shanghai, so the novel shifts between London and Shanghai. The book begins in a way that has you thinking that the novel might move forward and backward in time as well, since it is written in first person by the protagonist, Christopher Banks himself.
In fact, the beginning has Banks running into an old school friend, Osbourne, who invites him to a reception in honour of a tycoon at Charingworth Club. There is frequent mention of several such parties he attends and also several cases that he’s working on, but you never know what these cases are really about. He goes down memory lane, recollecting how he came to be in England with his aunt in Shropshire. And one thinks that Ishiguro uses the device of parties mainly for us to meet certain characters who he helps etch out. For example, a silver-haired man offers to introduce Banks to the who’s who at the Charingworth Club party which, as he recollects, is “rather dark… filled with greying men in black jackets… and hardly any ladies present.”
And a lady, Sarah Hemmings, who the silver-haired man thinks Banks would be wasting his time on. Curiously, the gentleman thinks that by introducing him around, he would be helping him progress in life. “Now, let me see. I take it you’re looking for someone to give you a leg up in life. Correct? Don’t worry. Played much the same game myself when I was young.” Hardly surprising, you’d think after reading about Osbourne’s “well-connectedness” for a few pages already.
Ishiguro has Christopher and Sarah meet again at another party, so that he can tell us that Sarah is not a city girl, though she is drawn to London. And to establish early on in the novel that she is “ambitious”. As in this conversation between her and Banks:
‘“Why do you suppose that is, Miss Hemmings? That you should find it so imperative to seek out company such as this, tonight?”
“Imperative? You believe I find it imperative?”
“I would say so. And what I witnessed at the door, earlier on might tend to support that view.”
… “But why shouldn’t I, Christopher? Why shouldn’t I wish to be in company like this? Isn’t it simply… heaven?”
When I stayed silent, her smile faded.
… “It’s all right. You’ve every right. You find all of that, earlier on, you find it embarrassing, and you disapprove. But what else am I to do? “
Somewhere in the course of these parties, Sarah announces to Banks that she and Cecil Medhurst are planning to shift to Shanghai for a while and that he should contact them if he is travelling there.
No mystery here, but his recollections of his childhood friend, Akira, offer some suspense. These are a little more evocatively described, but also filled with horror especially when seen through a child’s eyes. Here are the main suspects, then: Akira and Ling Tien, an old Japanese servant in Akira’s home, Uncle Philip and Wang Ku, a warlord in Shanghai. But these suspects are still shadowy figures lurking in Christopher Banks’ recollections of his childhood days and the past.
For example, Akira believes that Ling Tien is up to something terrible, when he tells Banks that he takes dismembered arms and hands and turns them into spiders using a secret potion. Together they steal that bottle of potion from Ling Tien’s room, but it comes to nothing.
Equally sinister is Banks’ memory of Uncle Philip, who is not really his uncle but someone close to his parents, especially his mother. He offers to take Christopher shopping for a new piano accordion, and quizzes the boy about certain parts of Shanghai to check if he knew his way around, before abandoning him in a crowd.
“’Good boy!’ he said, this time more loudly, his voice trembling with emotion. Then he added” I didn’t want you hurt. You understand that? I didn’t want you hurt.’
With that he spun around and vanished into the crowd. I made a half-hearted effort to follow, and after a moment, caught sight of his white jacket hurrying through the people. Then he passed under the arch and out of my view.”
Wang Ku is a “plump man” that Christopher Banks remembers visiting their home in Shanghai along with Uncle Philip. Banks believes that he might be responsible for the disappearance of his parents, or might at least know their whereabouts since he was involved in the anti-opium campaign that Banks’ mother was actively engaged in.
This is another side-plot that Ishiguro sets up to establish a conflict of sorts and a motive, therefore, for someone to want to do the Banks’ family harm. Christopher’s mother was passionate about her anti-opium campaign that tried to oppose the opiating drive that the British were involved in among the Chinese population; in this sense, she was in many ways on the opposite side of the British Company, Morganbrook & Byatt, that her husband (Christopher’s father) worked for. Wang Ku was a Shanghai warlord who was losing power to Chiang Kai-shek, as China was coming under the growing influence of the Nationalists and perhaps had reason to switch allegiances.
As a reader, you get hints that these might be pivotal characters in Banks’ search for his parents, but nowhere does the story resolve itself. In fact, you’d expect that a detective investigating the disappearance of his own parents would form the main kernel of the novel, but there are no signs that he is. Only Banks writing so, makes it so and that isn’t good enough. There are no phone calls from people providing clues or information, nothing arrives in the mail, no newspaper articles about Shanghai in the 1930s that prompts him to probe further, no secret meetings providing him leads to investigate, just nothing at all. In all, the first half of the book is just listless partying and little else of any consequence.
The story jumps to Banks visiting Shanghai in the second half of the book, when it does pick up pace. But not in the sense that his investigation is getting somewhere, or that he is any closer to finding his parents. He happens to be in Shanghai when the Japanese were in occupation and controlling large parts of the city. In fact, he gets caught in the cross-fire between the Chinese and the Japs and who should he accidentally stumble upon, but Akira, his childhood buddy. A wounded Akira, lying on the streets of Shanghai who Banks enquires about the exact whereabouts of his own old home, instead of being concerned about Akira’s condition.
In a sense, all the central characters do come together in the second half of the book, when you think the loose ends would be tied up. However, all we read about is his encounter with Uncle Philip who informs Banks that his father ran away to Hong Kong with another woman and that his mother was abducted by the very same Wang Ku also known as “Yellow Snake”. Philip tells him that he allowed this to happen because he himself desired her and got perverse and vicarious pleasure from seeing her being treated sadistically by Wang Ku as well as the fact that a financial arrangement ensured Banks’ passage to safety in England. Banks also meets Sarah Hemmings and Cecil under very different circumstances in Shanghai, in dark and dingy gambling houses, shabby casinos where Cecil Medhurst liked to wager his money and insult his wife in public.
Reading When We Were Orphans, one wonders if Christopher Banks isn’t orphaned equally by the fact that he loses all the people who formed an important part of his life, as he is by the loss of his parents. Besides, there isn’t a single person in the book who displays any strength of moral fibre, enough to anchor the story that is otherwise about people just flitting about. Banks finally does track down his mother in a home for the aged in Hong Kong. She doesn’t recognize him, till he uses her old nickname for him, Puffin. She then mutters nostalgically, even if incoherently, about Puffin, all in third person as if Banks wasn’t there at all in front of her.
The only person Banks is left with, is a young Jennifer, an orphan he adopts in England somewhere in the middle of the book. He takes care of her education and her future, though she never calls him father, but uncle. However, now Jennifer’s life is away from London and she invites him to visit whenever London gets too much for him.
Eventually, I realized what the main problem with When We Were Orphans is. Besides the improbability of the storyline and its relevance in today’s world, its two-dimensional shadowy characters as well as the complete absence of any suggestion of a detective at work, is the very structure of the novel. It is written as a series of recollections by Christopher Banks in first person, with chapter headings as dates and years, as if in a journal or diary. However, it isn’t written like a journal, and that is its failing.
This also provided a clue as to why the story doesn’t move forward and backward in time. It is chronological memory, not the way our minds actually remember, prompted by the utterance of a stray phrase, or a fleeting image of something.
Having read some of Kazuo Ishiguro’s early works, and enjoyed them immensely, I find it hard to understand why his writing career has taken the turn that it has. I haven’t read The Buried Giant, a fantasy novel, set in post-Arthurian England, but I think Ishiguro is at his best dealing with subjects to do with a country’s, or a generation’s past, with what has gone before and how we come to terms with it, before we can move forward. Recently, he seems to have tried futuristic fiction as well, as with Klara and the Sun, which was reviewed by the editor of Vanity Fair, Radhika Jones and which I shared with subscribers of my newsletter at The Whistle Library on my blog long ago, even though I thought she mistakenly compared it with Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
It appears to me that in dealing with the past and reconciling with the future, Ishiguro himself is now caught in a time-warp. And somewhere in that confusion, his elegant writing too has become a casualty.
The featured image at the start of the post is of Shanghai by Yiran Ding on Unsplash
PS: This edition of the book, When We Were Orphans says that the copyright year for this book is 2000, and Wikipedia too says the book was first published in the year 2000, though I very much doubt it, as I hadn’t heard of it until now.
This certainly looks like the handiwork of unprofessional idiots at Perfect Relations and their cronies at BBDO India (Chennai) who have been meddling in publishing and printing for years and have even meddled with books in my luggage while it was in storage at the packers and movers’ warehouse in Chennai for several months in 2004-05.
Since then, the unprofessional PR agency idiots have also been meddling through their “connections” at various publishing houses to get awful books written by well-regarded authors, ruining them in the process. As they are always wont to do, this is to cover for their previous transgressions; they had got Outlook Magazine in India to publish a cover story on AIDS Orphans in 2006-07 when I worked with them briefly in their Delhi Office. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but their (rather stupid) COO, Valerie Pinto ran out of my cabin (which I was asked to share with one Devdarshan Chakraborty, a goatie-bearded head of planning, supposedly) shrieking, “AIDS ORPHANS!” when she merely glimpsed the Outlook issue lying on my desk along with several other newsmagazines. It was almost as if she would contract AIDS if she stood in my cabin a minute longer!
The way both organisations together have managed to wreck my career and prevent me from fulfilling my obligations towards my aged parents and grandmums, all of whom have departed except my dear old father, they certainly seem to be waiting for the day when I will be truly orphaned and destitute, and that, at the old age of 60 years and more.