Wednesday, February 22, 2017

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Note


When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro:

Spoiler-filled note:

It's highly literary and is ostensibly and subvertingly set in the frame of a typical non literary detective novel, which it partially reverses. In many less than literary detective novels, there is a tight world into which evil has anomalously intruded but is rooted out by detection and discovery that lead in turn to a closing of accounts and a return to normalcy. In When..., Banks, the main character, is a famous detective in the apparent mould of Holmes. But he fails abjectly to solve his biggest case. Then again while the world is generally hell on earth, Banks does manage to find some portion of something like normalcy.

He is famous in England and beyond for his great skills at solving cases. But when he was 10, living in the international section of Shanghai, his parents disappeared. And so on his most important case he goes back to Shanghai to solve the mystery of that, which solution seems as well, in a way never made clear, to hold the possibility of staving off a world crisis of war and international chaos. 

This coupling of the personal and the international is perplexing but it's not only Banks who puts the two together: others around him both back in England before he leaves and officials in Shanghai keep telling him that he must solve the case--the fate of the world depends on it. 

Truth to tell, in relation to that coupling and what radiates out from it as Banks starts detecting in Shanghai, I have a hard time working through what's real and what's Banks's interiority. I can understand that coupling insofar as as the world is but what he takes it to be: in that sense, the personal is the world as subjectivity. But I don't know what to make of Banks, as first person narrator, telling me of people in England telling him he must solve the case for the world's sake; and I don't know what to make of Banks telling me of high English officials in Shanghai, once he gets back there, telling him the same thing with one official talking about planning  a huge public ceremony for when he inevitably finds his parents. 

Apparently Banks knows that his parents were abducted and are being kept in a certain house and that all he need do is find the house and extract them from the kidnappers. Everyone seems to agree. But this is 25 years after the abduction. 

Is this madness? Is this reality? Is it something else? Significantly for these questions, the narration seems to be composed by Banks in his later years as he reflects back on his life;  his narrative prose generally, not always, shows a calm, understated, somewhat stiff and stuffy, even fussy, formal, Cambridge-educated, unrelentingly rational man, who appears reflective, discerning and continually making sober judgments about the events of his life.

Part of the book concerns a harrowing account of how at the last minute instead of calmly waiting to go off with Sarah Hemmings, he leaves her behind and tries to get to the house where he's sure his parents are kept. The journey to the house, amidst street to street fighting between Chinese and Japanese soldiers, and amidst Japanese shelling of Shanghai, seems a journey through and to the heart of darkness. 

At one point he picks up with a seriously wounded Japanese soldier who he recognizes as his childhood best friend Akira. Akira tells Banks he knows where the house is. And they make their way there, each helping the other along. Then Japanese soldiers, in the house, with no sign of Banks's parents anywhere, take Akira away as a prisoner who may have spilled military information to Chinese soldiers to save his own life. After that Banks admits that the soldier he was sure was Akira may not have been him at all, (although he may have been at that.)

Now this confusion over Akira makes narrative and psychological sense. In the event, the emotional strain, fatigue and existential desperation to find his parents, all almost to, or in fact to, a psychic breaking point, could well cause Banks to hallucinate this highly improbable, virtually impossible, harried, fraught encounter with his friend. As noted, Banks tells us that it may well not have been Akira. 

As to those in England and later in Shanghai, however, telling Banks the world's order rests on him solving his parents' case, and in Shanghai the planning of preparations to celebrate his inevitable solution, what to make of that? There is no indication, as there is with Akira, from Banks that he may be mistaken about being told these things. At the time of being told, he is under no apparent strain, especially when told in England. Either I'm missing something or in this the novel lapses into incomprehensibility, into incoherence. (I'd put my money on the former.)

The same lapse, incoherence, or my missing something, attends the Lin family's willingness to vacate Banks's Shanghai childhood home once Banks without doubt finds his parents. The notion that it would do that, just like that give up where it lives, is as preposterous as Banks's certainty that his parents will after 25 years be in the place they were taken, and is as preposterous as the notion that solving the case will save the world. 

Be all that as it may, When.. is thematically unified, at least as I read it. I see in it, among other ideas, the idea of the irretrievability of childhood, childhood as a country to which we can never return, even as the child is the father of the man. Everyone has their deeply burdensome built in sacks of woe stemming from their childhoods and their necessarily fraught relations with their parents. That inevitability is heightened immeasurably by orphanage. While literal orphans populate the novel, they in their numbers suggest a universal truth: that childhood, in part comprised by our relations with parents, while indelibly formative and deeply, deeply problem causing, is a home forever lost to us, that we are all orphans seeking what is lost and irretrievable. Orphanage is a literal condition to be sure, but it also a metaphoric condition of adult existence. 

Yet the title is When We Were Orphans. That suggests to me orphanage in its metaphoric sense can get gotten past, that we can come to some terms with ourselves such that we accommodate the built in burdens forged in childhood to the point that we stop intensely questing, stop detecting and discovering, to resolve them. 

So at the end, in a micro arc of the whole novel, we learn that Jennifer, 30, and unmarried, flirted with suicide, then got past her darkness, got married, had children of her own and found, presumably, some measure of contentment. Banks is released by Uncle Philip telling him the truth of things, of his parents, and is released by finding his mother, come through sheer hell to be cared for in an asylum, and her telling him, he infers, that he does not need any forgiveness and that she always loved him and still does. So released, he finds himself in his later years enjoying life in London, even as he sometimes thinks of going to live close to Jennifer and her family in a cottage in the country; so released, he has found, in his own word, some portion of "contentment." 

(As a final note, I'll just say that, to me, the idea that Banks as an adult is driven, animated and motivated by guilt over his parents' disappearance such that finding them and finding resolution in their forgiveness and love becomes his deepest, most desperate, most haunted and most impelling life's quest seems utterly unreal and contrived, as though Ishiguro was fitting a complex, sprawling story into a Procrustean bed of some half baked psychotherapeutic theory.)

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