Figuring the Real: Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans
The five novels that Ishiguro has written to date show a remarkably consistent preoccupation
with the same themes, "themes with an emotional dimension," as he put it (Mason 347). He has been equally consistent from the start in addressing a much wider audience than just a British or English-speaking one. And he began his writing life by distinguishing his work from "the kind of book whose raison d'être is to say something about literary form." "I always try to disguise those elements of my writing that I feel perhaps are experimental" (Mason 347). Yet it is Ishiguro's use of language, genre and literary form that most distinguish his work and account for its power and hold over his readers. He has a near perfect ear for the rhythms of the English language, and a remarkably lucid prose style that is almost unmatched among modern writers. What is so fascinating about his career so far is the way in which his enduring concern with certain emotional themes and with shaping them to appeal to an international readership have driven him to experiment increasingly with non-realist modes of fiction: to burlesque different genres, and to rely more heavily on figurative language, symbolic import, and narrative manipulation in his search for the most effective way of giving fictional expression to these recurring motifs.
At the same time any examination of narrative manipulation in his work cannot be separated from a recognition of its political and national dimensions. In When We Were Orphans, the novel on which this essay focuses, the settings and characters are departures both from narrative realism and from nationalism. Written for an international readership, the novel oscillates between England, the old center of empire, and Shanghai where the Occident meets the Orient, itself the product of a hegemonic Western discourse. The protagonist is equally transnational, moving between center and periphery more than once in the course of the book. Childhood becomes associated with Shanghai's International Settlement where the protagonist spends his early childhood. But the child's feeling of being protected in this privileged enclave of colonial power is exposed as an illusion when the anarchic forces of the Chinese mainland (parallel to the unconscious forces of the libido) invade this secure center and abduct both parents. In Ishiguro's fiction to be orphaned, to be deprived of parental security, becomes a trope for transnational identity, for doing without a fatherland or motherland. The protagonist comes to realize that the feared other is actually located within the self that has discursively created that other out of its own fears. Like the protagonist, the privileged few have peopled the world beyond their safe borders with monsters of their own imagination. In the course of the novel Ishiguro forces the reader to recognize that the representatives of colonialism, while attempting to foist onto the colonized the stigma of eternal childishness, are in fact themselves childlike, having evaded maturation by projecting the unacceptable within themselves onto the subjects of their colonial discourse.
Manipulating narrative conventions to break with mainstream fictional realism has political as well as aesthetic implications. The classic realist novel, as Catherine Belsey argues, "coincides chronologically with the epoch of industrial capitalism" (67). It serves to conceal from the reader the way in which language constructs subjectivity, just as ideology conceals from capitalist and colonial subjects the ruling power's interpellation of their subjectivity. The adult protagonist's failure to discover the whereabouts of his missing parents parallels the failure of the Western powers and Japan to interpellate the Chinese as subject peoples. Personal and political subjection coincide repeatedly in Ishiguro's fiction, as do personal and political disintegration. In When We Were Orphans the protagonist's inability to counter forces of evil echoes that of democracies in the 1930s faced with the destructive forces of fascist powers. Equally history itself is put to figurative use in this, as in all his novels, to reveal its origins in the personal and the psychological. The protagonist's childlike search for his missing parents is reminiscent of the Western powers' nostalgic attempt with the International Settlement to reassert parental control over an aberrant nation. Fascism, like colonialism, is the imposition of parental discipline on adults discursively constituted as children. All such efforts can be characterized as a consequence of dreams of wish fulfillment, dreams that require a narrative mode removed from realism for their successful fictional representation. While this essay concentrates on Ishiguro's use of non-realist modes of fiction, it should never be forgotten that with this writer these modes always have a political and ideological dimension.
His five novels written over two decades divide themselves between the first three, all pursuing a supposedly realist mode of narration, and the last two which have seemingly abandoned that surface appearance of realism for what might be termed a surrealist fictional mode. His first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), is narrated in the first person by Etsuko, a Japanese mother whose eldest daughter recently committed suicide after the family moved to England. Her memories of her past life in Nagasaki after World War Two focus largely on her friendship with a mother and daughter whose relationship eerily resembles that of Etsuko and her dead daughter. The unreliability of her memory (one of Ishiguro's principal themes throughout his fiction), to which she draws attention early on, is dramatically underlined when she unconsciously substitutes her own daughter's name for that of her friend's daughter on the penultimate page, revealing the possibility that all her memories of her friend and her daughter were in fact disguised memories of herself and her daughter. What this substitution of daughters suggests is that her daughter's suicide has left her with guilt feelings so powerful that they have caused her to repress the real past. Mike Petry claims that "[e]very decisive character, every important motif, and every major scene in A Pale View of Hills exists, at least , twice" (25). Even this early in his career Ishiguro can be seen chafing against the restraints of a realist narrative mode.
His second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986), focuses on Masuji Ono, a Japanese painter who used his art to promote nationalist militarism prior to the outbreak of World War Two. In his old age long after the War he is forced to come to terms with the way a younger generation sees the cause he championed in his career as misguided and irresponsible as well as being a perversion of his art. As is the case with the portrayal of Etsuko, Ono has difficulty facing the truth about his own past. His memories don't always square with accounts of the same events offered by others. He conveniently forgets or misremembers things. Additionally his daughters and in-laws imply that he has an inflated sense of the importance of the role he played in pre-War Japan. Once again Ishiguro refrains from offering the reader a definitive interpretation of events. That is one of the realist aspects of this technique - that, as in life, we are missing too much evidence to be sure which interpretation of the facts is correct.
His third novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), made Ishiguro famous outside his adopted country, especially when it was turned into a Merchant-Ivory movie starring Anthony Hopkins in 1993. The book focuses on Stevens, an English butler who loyally served Lord Darlington during his pre-War attempts to reach accommodation with the powers of fascism. Stevens' cult of dignity serves as a cover for his repression of his emotional life. He opts to remain on duty at one of Lord Darlington's important dinners (for appeasers of fascist aggressors) when his father is dying upstairs. He also ignores mutual feelings of attraction with the housekeeper. His language is the language of skilled repression, filled with euphemisms such as "deceased condition" (106) that keep the unpleasant reality of death at arms' length. Once again the novel recounts in the first person Stevens' attempts in later life to face the truth about his ill spent past, and as is the case with the two previous novels he partially succeeds in doing so and earns some compassion from the reader in the process.
By this point in his career Ishiguro realized that he had taken this particular form of narrative realism as far as he could: "what happened with my first three books is that I was actually trying to refine what I did over and over again and with The Remains of the Day I feel that I came to the end of that process" (Vorda 150). Having repeatedly asserted that the two strongest influences on his writing were Chekhov and Dostoevsky, he decided to desert the former for the latter. Abandoning the "controlled approach," he decided to make his fourth novel, The Unconsoled (1995), "more emotionally risky" (Jaggi 21). Over five hundred pages long, this book immerses the reader straight into a fantastic world in which the irrational connections and continuity resemble that of dreams.
The first person narrator is Ryder, a famous pianist, who has arrived at an unnamed mid European city to give a speech and performance that he and (maybe) many of the inhabitants expect to revolutionize the cultural life of the town. The first scene includes an impossibly long near-monologue by Gustav the porter in the course of taking the elevator to Ryder's floor of the hotel. It gradually appears that Gustav is the father of Ryder's (ex?) wife, Sophie, and grandfather of their son, Boris. Another important trio consists of Hoffman, the hotel manager, his wife and their son, Stephan, an aspiring musician. But the reality status of these characters is quickly blurred as the possibility arises that both Boris and Stephan might represent versions of Ryder at earlier stages of his life. The fact that Ryder can read the unspoken thoughts of these earlier incarnations of himself indicates to the reader the extent to which Ryder has appropriated these two characters for his own purposes and deprived them of any independent dialogic status. At the same time Ryder's inability to be certain whether Sophie is his wife or Boris his son shows Ishiguro pushing to new limits his exploration of the unreliable narrator.
Like the three preceding narrators Ryder seems afflicted by some deep childhood wound or trauma that affects every aspect of his adult outlook and behavior. He betrays similar feelings of sadness and regret that characterize all three narrators of Ishiguro's previous novels. This sense of malaise has its roots in another long standing obsession of Ishiguro's - the strained relationships between parents and children, which is made much clearer in this novel. Not that it is not evident in the earlier three. Etsuko is troubled by the possibility that the mother (herself or her friend) may have mistreated her daughter. Ono is at odds with his two daughters the younger of whom may have been rejected by her first suitor because of his past allegiances. Stevens puts the needs of his employer above his dying father. But in The Unconsoled Ryder is not the only parent who cannot communicate with his son. Gustav and his daughter Sophie stopped talking to one another when she was still a child. Hoffman and his wife consistently belittle the musical talents of their son whose performance pushes interpretation beyond permissible bounds in his attempt to win their recognition of his real (according to Ryder) musical ability. Stephan's parents leave the concert hall half way through his performance. And Ryder himself is equally devastated by the non-appearance of his parents at the same climactic concert. The connection between the non-realist appropriation of other characters and the book's obsession with parent-children relationships is made clear by a remark of Ishiguro's the year the novel was published:
I wished to move right away from straight realism [. . .] I thought, let's create a world, as in a dream, where you bump into people, and some of them are to some extent you when you were small, and some are projections of who you fear you might be, or the relationship between these two people is in some way the relationship between you and your parents-. (Goring S8)
The fear governing Ishiguro's narrators is that as adults they might be reproducing the relationship they had with their parents as children. They spend their adult lives relating to others in an unsuccessful attempt to break away from that definitive model.
Ishiguro broke with the traditional realist mode of fiction in other ways in his fourth novel. The rules of not just time but place are broken. Ryder can hear conversations taking place where he is not present. His hotel bedroom in the city appears to Ryder to be "the very room that had served as my bedroom during the two years my parents and I lived at my aunt's house on the borders of England and Wales" (16). At one point Ryder takes a long journey in to the country surrounding the unnamed city to appear at a function from which he exits through a door that returns him directly to his hotel in the center of the city. Next morning he is congratulated on a "marvellously witty address" he never delivered at the reception (155). There are also scenes involving breakfast being served on a town tram, cards being played in the stalls during a cinema performance, and a funeral procession that halts to pay homage to the famous pianist by offering him as refreshments a piece of cellophane-wrapped fruit cake and peppermints. Highly improbable coincidences proliferate, such as when a tram inspector confronting a ticketless Ryder turns out to be a childhood girlfriend from his village primary school in Worcestershire. Yet at the same time as he is abandoning the realist attempt to suspend the reader's disbelief Ishiguro is careful to stay within the conventions of the strange Kafkaesque world he has constructed: "If you create an alternative world where alternative rules exist physical, temporal, behavioural there has to be a consistency, a new set of rules" (Jaggi 21). By this stage Ishiguro has become fully conscious of the way in which even supposedly realist fictional worlds have rules and conventions that establish for their readers a correspondence with the world they live in. So, for example, in The Unconsoled the reader soon learns to expect that whenever Ryder sets out for another scheduled appointment he will be side-tracked and fail to make it or to make it on time while increasing his mounting level of anxiety.
Ishiguro's fifth novel, When We Were Orphans (2000), opens in the more realist mode of his first three books and gradually metamorphoses into the surrealist mode of his fourth novel. Combining the strengths of both, When We Were Orphans offers a classic case study of Ishiguro's innovative use of a growing variety of fictional, generic and linguistic conventions in his search for the most satisfying aesthetic way of expressing the same themes that have haunted his work throughout his writing career. One reviewer claimed that this novel demonstrates how Ishiguro's flight from classic realism is in fact more realist than so-called realist fiction: "Ishiguro's inextricable fusion of memory, imagination and dream takes us down into the labyrinth of reality which realism has simplified" (Carey 45). By this fifth novel he shows full awareness of the way in which for the novelist the medium is, if not the whole message, the most important aspect of it.
The plot combines the excitement of the detective novel with the psychological interest of the first-person confessional that characterizes his earlier work. Christopher Banks, the narrator, has spent the first ten years of his life protected from the outer world by his English parents who lived in the privileged haven of the International Settlement of Shanghai, There his best friend, Akira, is the son of Japanese neighbors. Banks occupies a bastion of the colonial center that is literally surrounded by the dangerous periphery of the Chinese mainland. When his father suddenly disappears into that peripheral area Banks and Akira develop an elaborate compensatory game in which they impersonate the Chinese detective inspector searching for his father. Next his mother goes missing and Banks is shipped off (in about 1911) to live with his aunt in England. There he grows up determined to become a real detective in his adult life. In the 1920s he quickly becomes what his friend Sarah describes as "the most brilliant investigative mind in England" (34). But he is motivated all along by his childhood desire to clear up the baffling case of his parents' supposed abduction. To this end in 1937, after an improbably long interval, he finally returns to Shanghai which at this time is plunged in the Sino-Japanese war that was a precursor to the outbreak of World War Two. In the nightmarish world of war torn Shanghai the surreal becomes the natural mode of narration.
Just as Ryder and the city's leaders automatically assume that his concert will prove a turning point in the city's cultural history, so both Banks and the inhabitants of the Settlement fully expect him to solve the case in no time at all. The absurdity of this assumption is illustrated by the farcical scene in which on his arrival Banks is greeted by a municipal official who wants to finalize arrangements for the triumphant return of Banks' parents, as if their return from captivity were a foregone conclusion. How can the mysterious, backward Orient hope to withstand the rational powers of a representative of the civilization that constructed China as part of its Oriental discourse? Later Banks is taken to a house which turns out to be his childhood home. Once again the improbable becomes the norm: the Chinese family currently living there immediately offers to move out so that he can bring his rescued parents there to live out the rest of their lives a clear instance of wish-fulfillment on Banks' part. His search for his parents takes him to the war zone beyond the safety of the International Settlement where he meets against all odds Akira (or does he?), now a wounded Japanese soldier, who guides him to the house where his parents were alleged to be held captive. But the house has been struck by a shell and hardly surprisingly a quarter of a century later his parents are not there. He doesn't learn the truth about them until finally he confronts an old friend of the family, "Uncle" Philip, now known as Yellow Snake, a Communist double agent for Chiang Kai-shek, who would be more at home in a James Bond narrative. Philip tells him that his father ran off with a mistress and died from typhoid two years later in Singapore. In keeping with a Boy's Own adventure story, his mother offended an opium warlord who arranged for her to be kidnapped and kept her as his concubine. She agreed to submit to him provided he made a financial allowance for Banks until he grew up. Some 22 years later the warlord died and she disappeared in war-torn China. But in a coda Banks finally discovers her in 1953 in a Hong Kong religious institution for the mentally disturbed. She does not recognize him, but when he asks her whether she could forgive Puffin, his childhood nickname, she responds, "Did you say forgive Puffin? Whatever for?" (328). The most significant thematic departure from Ishiguro's previous fiction in this book is the tone of muted contentment in the final chapter that supercedes the angst that drove Banks to outperform himself in his chosen profession all his adult life.
It is easy to identify in this novel those recurrent thematic motifs that have appeared in Ishiguro's previous work. Once again we are overhearing the recollections of a first person narrator. Like all his predecessors, Banks is an unreliable narrator whose memory is faulty, a fact we ascertain from his own reflections on its accuracy and from the conflicting testimony of others, such as his old school friend who remembers him as being "'such an odd bird at school'" (7), a very different creature from his own recollection of his regular boyish personality. As in all his earlier books, parents and children are alienated from one another, and either a parent or a child, or in Banks' case both spend their life trying to compensate for their assumed early inadequacy or failure. This need to put right the perceived wrongs of the past so preoccupies Ishiguro's narrators that they fail to attend to their adult emotional needs and desires. Only at the end of their lives do they recognize (or half acknowledge) the waste that their pursuit of this goal has made of their own lives. Consequently all his novels are haunted by a sense of angst, regret and sadness. Ishiguro seems to imply that the need to try to put right the inevitable failures of our childhood years is an unavoidable compulsion that forces all of us to pursue this chimera at the expense of a more satisfying form of adult life. The shadowy implied author invariably shows compassion for his self-deluded narrators. It is as if he shared in their predicament (the actual author has confessed in several interviews to doing so). Another constant characteristic of Ishiguro's fiction is the way in which the carefully controlled narrative withholds more than it reveals. The narrative continually offers the reader a plurality of meanings and interpretations while remaining uncommitted. Ishiguro has said that he is primarily "interested in the way words hide meaning" (Vorda 136).
But such an essentialist attempt to uncover the constants in Ishiguro's fiction ignores the radical differences between When We Were Orphans and any of the previous four books. These differences are not simply a matter of differing plots. Besides, as Ishiguro points out, he tries "to put in as little plot as possible" (Bryson 38). The tendency to give metaphorical significance to seemingly realist elements increases with each book. He has referred to Stevens as "a good metaphor for the relationship of very ordinary, small people to power" (Swift 22). Similarly he has described Ryder as "a metaphor for going through life without a schedule" (Kenney 47). This tendency to give figurative significance to realist elements in his work is even more evident in When We Were Orphans. Take for instance the proliferation of orphans in this book. Not only is Banks orphaned at the age of ten. He later adopts Jennifer after she has been orphaned at the same age. Sarah, the only woman he cares for, lost both of her parents during her childhood. Even Mr. Lin, the owner of his childhood house in Shanghai, recalls how his father adopted an orphan girl whom the son treated like his own sister. The entire motif is given succinct expression when Banks asks Sarah whether she lost her parents long ago: "It seems like for ever," she replies. "But in another way, they're always with me" (48). The book's multiplication of orphans invites a figurative reading, forcing us to understand that to feel oneself orphaned is a common experience that happens to most children as they grow apart from their parents, just as it happens to most ex-colonies after they have gained independence from their colonial occupiers. At the same time we have thoroughly internalized the parents / colonial occupiers by the time we leave them or they us. As Freud argued, it is this internalization of the parental edict that makes possible secondary or psychological repression in adult life, a condition that Banks obviously suffers from, as do all Ishiguro's narrators and many other of his characters. In the course of the novel the individual experience of the orphaned Banks is transformed by metaphorical multiplication into a collective experience. In fact Banks occupies a liminal location in the novel, as he fills the child's role as an individual, and yet is a representative of the parental colonial power as the master detective from England. Whether Ishiguro is locating the origins of the individual's neurosis in the collective mania of the age or attributing the social malaise to the neurotic behavior of individuals like Banks remains undefined. But the close connection between individual and collective neurotic responses is a given in this as in all Ishiguro's fiction.
As in his previous novels the settings also become charged with emotional and symbolic significance. In his first two novels, he has said, "I just invent a Japan which serves my needs" (Mason 341). He set The Remains of the Day "in a mythical landscape" that "resembled the mythical version of England that is peddled in the nostalgia industry" (Kelman 73). In The Unconsoled the unnamed mid-European city where the action is centered is unmistakably what Ishiguro has called "a landscape of imagination [. . .] in which everything is an expression of [Ryder's] past and his fears for the future" (Krider 151-2). In When We Were Orphans Ishiguro transports Banks from the seemingly more realistic setting of London to the "exotic" Chinese port of Shanghai where Banks had spent the all-important years of his childhood. It is interesting that Ishiguro's father was born in Shanghai when his grandfather, "the person," he has said, "who acted as father-figure for the first four years of my life in Japan," was employed there by Toyota (Tonkin 9). Yet Ishiguro had never visited the modern city before completing When We Were Orphans. He preferred to construct the novel from other books found in antiquarian bookshops (Tonkin 9), situating his Shanghai at two removes from the real city. The International Settlement in which Banks lived is a safe enclave that the Western powers sealed off for themselves from the poverty and misery of the rest of this Chinese city. In this way, as Ishiguro has said, "the international zone becomes a metaphor for childhood" for Banks, "that he later finds is nowhere near as solid and protected as he believes" (Marchand). Could Ishiguro be subtly implying that the colonial center comes closer to acting out the role of the child than the colony it had "adopted"? Part Two of the novel is largely taken up with the twenty-nine-year-old Banks' memories of the first ten years he spent in the International Settlement. Already Banks catches himself recalling the house as grander than it was (53). What emerges is a picture of a privileged and protected childhood complete with servants, a personal amah, and devoted parents. Outside this magic enclave lay the forbidden, mysterious Chinese city which Banks once glimpsed: "I could see the huddled low rooftops across the canal, and held my breath as long as I could for fear the pestilence would come airborne across the narrow strip of water" (56). His friend Akira demonstrates the way in which those in power construct myths that reinforce their domination by characterizing the other in negative terms when he makes up more gruesome stories about the Chinese city where dead bodies piled up everywhere and warlords ordered innocent bystanders to be beheaded at a whim.
This childhood fantasy of the adult outside world is so powerful that when in Part Four the thirty-six-year-old Banks finally returns to Shanghai he confuses his childish fantasies with the real city. This time the Chinese city really is undergoing bombardment and invasion by the Japanese. The adult world is as terrible and violent as the two children imagined, but in a different and perhaps more devastating way. At the same time Banks now sees the International Settlement as a place of undeserved privilege in which the Western élite view the Japanese shelling of the Chinese part of the city from their hotel as if it were another form of entertainment. Banks slowly comes to appreciate the hypocrisy and exploitation underlying the apparent tranquility and safety of the district in which he spent his childhood. This hypocrisy and exploitation is made explicit and personal in the form of the opium trade that his father's firm promotes. Ultimately the adult world, in the person of Wang Ku, the warlord his mother insults, erupts into Banks' sheltered existence in the International Settlement and brings his idyllic childhood to a premature end. Yet, Banks' memories of his childhood and the International Settlement cloud his perception of the actuality when he returns, undermining his principal adult skill of detecting the truth from what visual evidence is available. Indirectly this comments on the failure of the older colonial powers to see clearly the emergent ex-colonies in their true colors, preferring to infantilize them.
Ishiguro has said that he believes that most writers "do write out of something that is unresolved somewhere deep down and, in fact, it's probably too late ever to resolve it" (Vorda 151). Does this help to account for the strange combination of megalomania and guilt that pervades The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans? The dream-like atmosphere into which this novel plunges us arouses just those feelings of dread and horror that Freud claims is the effect of the uncanny. Freud opens his essay, "The Uncanny," by demonstrating the paradoxical way in which the German word for "uncanny" (unheimlich) means both something strange and new and something familiar and old. Freud explains this paradox by arguing that "this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression" (241). Repression is what causes the producer of the uncanny to over accentuate the psychical reality at the expense of the material reality. In fact Freud's definition of the sources of the uncanny coincides remarkably with the fictive techniques pursued by Ishiguro. Freud argues that "an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes" (244).
Ishiguro immerses Banks in a dreamlike world on his return to Shanghai where, he says, he experiences a sense of "disorientation which threatened to overwhelm me" (164). Ishiguro positions Banks midway between the real and the imaginary, so that the reader can never be sure whether an incident is located in the real (fictive) world or in Banks' imagination. The effect of this simultaneous evocation of the homely (heimlich) and the alienated is that of the uncanny which pervades not just the more fantastic later portion of the novel, but in more subtle form the earlier sections as well. For instance, the hallucinatory expectation among the members of the International Settlement that Banks is the one who can save civilization from an encroaching evil predates his arrival in Shanghai as an adult, being voiced by Sir Cecil as early as Chapter 3 (45). In fact the novel is organized by what Freud called repetition compulsion. According to Freud the compulsion to repeat something does "arouse an uncanny feeling, which, furthermore, recalls the sense of helplessness experienced in some dream-states" (237). In the first part of the novel Banks experiences a sense of extreme helplessness at his inability to recover his parents despite his empathetic impersonation of the renowned Chinese detective put onto the case. In the second half of the novel Banks experiences a repetition of that sense of helplessness when he fails again to recover his parents as a detective in his own right. Freud explains why such repetition gives rise to the effect of the uncanny in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a book he worked on at the same time as he was writing "The Uncanny": "the compulsion to repeat also recalls from the past experiences which include no possibility of pleasure, and which can never, even long ago, have brought satisfaction even to instinctual impulses which have since been repressed" (21).
Freud claims that the uncanny thrives more readily in literature than in life because the author tricks us into believing in the reality of his fictive world only to introduce effects which rarely or never occur in actuality, thereby "betraying us to the superstitiousness which we have ostensibly surmounted" (250). Banks' coincidental encounter with Akira in the war zone is a perfect example of this: by the time Banks comes to doubt that the Japanese soldier is indeed Akira it is too late for the reader who has already experienced the sense of the uncanny. The point Freud is making is that the writer can manipulate our credence in his fictive world to achieve his desired effects: "He can keep us in the dark for a long time about the precise nature of the presuppositions on which the world he writes is based [. . .]" (251). This is precisely what Ishiguro does. For a long time we share Banks' obsessions and projections and do not necessarily recognize the distortions and fantasies embedded in this professional detective's attempt at an objective narrative account of his life. Only when he starts to shed his illusions after Uncle Philip has revealed to him the truth about his parents' disappearances do we come to retrospectively appreciate the extent to which the author has immersed us in the uncanny by his own narrative manipulation.
Even the wounds inflicted on "Akira" and Banks come to assume figurative significance as the wounds inflicted on them by childhood. This would explain why Banks reflects so savagely on the "pompous men of the International Settlement" and on "all the prevarications they must have employed to evade their responsibilities" (258) a fine example of displacement. Banks' entire career as an outstanding detective is just another instance of displacement which equally fails to heal the original wound. Childhood, like the International Settlement, is more complicated and less idyllic than Banks' remembers it as being. The shattering revelation of the sacrifice his mother made for him that Uncle Philip delivers in the penultimate chapter finally exposes the price paid for Banks' retention into his adult life and career of this chimera of an innocent childhood protected, like the International Settlement, from the corruption and dangers of adult life epitomized by the Chinese city and mainland. Uncle Philip spells it out to him:
"But now do you see how the world really is? You see what made possible your comfortable life in England? How you were able to become a celebrated detective? [. . .] Your mother, she wanted you to live in your enchanted world for ever. But it's impossible. In the end it has to shatter. It's a miracle it survived so long for you." (314-5)
Ishiguro's strategy in this book is to progressively break the reader's dependence on the conventions of traditional fictional realism. The improbable accumulation of instances of orphans detaches the reader from a realist response as effectively as does the move from a seemingly orderly London to an anarchic Shanghai under siege where the surreal activities of war merge with the surreal experiences of Banks. In point of fact Banks' unreliable memories have been distorting the narrative from the opening pages set in London. Ishiguro talks about When We Were Orphans, not in terms of surrealism, but in terms of expressionist art, "where everything is distorted to reflect the emotion of the artist who is looking at the world" (Richards). Banks' vision is indeed at its most expressive or subjective in the later sections of the novel set in Shanghai when his investment in his childhood dream is in maximum conflict with the stark reality. Banks is suffering from a common failing, according to Ishiguro, "the futile hope or wish that you can return to some point in your childhood, or your distant past, when you suppose things went wrong, when your world went askew, [. . .] and undo what happened" (Coldstream 62). Banks' illusion that he can achieve this superhuman feat becomes increasingly divorced from the reality of the situation as the novel progresses until he is brought face to face with the false image he has been treasuring of his childhood world. "In each section," Ishiguro has said, Banks' "mind has gone further away from what we call reality. When he goes back to Shanghai, we're really not quite sure if it's the real Shanghai or some mixture of memory and speculation" (Mudge).
Looked at structurally the book is organized into seven chronologically sequential sections of varying length. Yet the dates only refer to the time when the narrative is being written which largely coincides with the dates when Banks recalls memories from the past. As one reviewer put it, in this book "the past is alive in the present" (Sutcliffe 49). More importantly each section is structured in a non-chronological sequence that is determined by the emotional, subjective quirks of Banks' memory. Ishiguro has said that he is "more interested in what people tell themselves happened rather than what actually happened" ( Dunn). Ishiguro's rejection of any chronological imperative leaves him free to develop the narrative "tonally," as he puts it (Mason 342), to use narrative structure to uncover the structure of the narrator's unconscious. Lacan's linguistic explanation of Freud's conception of the unconscious and its manifestation in the form of neurotic symptoms is relevant here:
[. . .] if [Freud] has taught us to follow the ascending ramification of the symbolic lineage in the text of the patient's free associations, in order to map it out at the points where its verbal forms intersect with the nodal points of its structure, then it is already quite clear that the symptom resolves itself entirely in an analysis of language, because the symptom is itself structured like a language, because it is from language that speech must be delivered. (59)
Banks' unconscious coincides to a great extent then not just with the unconscious of his civilization but with the unconscious of the text.
Part One focuses on Banks' first meetings with Sarah, but has flashbacks to his English schooldays and his traumatic return as a child from Shanghai. Already there appear to be discrepancies between his memories of his past and those of his old school friend, Osbourne, and of Colonel Chamberlain who accompanied him back to England. Part Two opens with another meeting with Sarah but then reverts to memories of an earlier period of his childhood in Shanghai spent with his parents and Akira. This crucial section establishes some of the key childhood fantasies that will come to dominate his adult life. For example the section ends with Banks' dream, continued since the age of ten, of being reunited with Akira when he returns to Shanghai, oblivious of the fact that almost twenty years have passed since he left, during which time Akira could have moved away, died, or simply changed into someone who no longer had anything in common with Banks. When Banks finally enters the war zone outside the Settlement in Part Six he comes across a Japanese soldier whom he persuades himself must be Akira. The dialogue is carefully constructed to preserve complete ambiguity concerning the identity of the Japanese soldier. He can be seen learning his part once he realizes that his survival depends on Banks assuming that he is Akira. When the Japanese soldier is finally arrested on suspicion of giving information to the enemy, Banks is forced to recognize the possibility that his childhood fantasy overwhelmed him: "I thought he was a friend of mine from my childhood. But now, I'm not so certain. I'm beginning to see now, many things aren't as I supposed" (297). In a lesser way too Banks first ascribes a sentence to his mother when she was reproaching a company inspector, and then, after reflecting on the inappropriateness of the accusation, re-ascribes it to her reproaching his father (63, 71, 74).
Part Three returns to the present for the most part, but it largely concerns Banks' adoption of Jennifer, herself an orphan, which only underlines his neurotic need to compensate for his own orphaned state. Parts Four, Five and Six all take place during the month in 1937 that Banks spends in Shanghai ostensibly to solve the mystery of his parents' disappearance a quarter of century earlier. The increased unreliability of Banks' account of these experiences (as opposed to the experiences themselves) is indicated to the reader in the first chapter of Part Four by an incident already mentioned - the absurd concern of Grayson, an official of the Municipal Council, to finalize arrangements for the triumphant reception of Banks' released parents at a ceremony in Jessfield Park (169). An attentive reader will remember that when Banks was describing his and Akira's childhood game of playing detectives, "our narratives would always conclude with a magnificent ceremony held in Jessfield Park" (118). The fantasies of childhood are constantly in danger of taking control of the narrative from this point until the dénouement. How much of the horror of the war-torn Chapei district of Chinese Shanghai is real and how much is it based on Banks' recollection of Akira's invented accounts of his visits to the same district? How can we take literally the offer of the Chinese family occupying Banks' childhood home (which his parents did not even own) to hand it over to him now that he will need it for his parents and his old amah? Mr. Lin, the Chinese head of the family, seen by the child in Banks as representative of the wild Orient that encircled the seemingly civilized International Settlement of his boyhood, appears to be just another outlet for voicing Banks' infantile / colonial fantasies when he says to him: "Of course, it is quite natural. You will wish to restore this house to just the way it was when you were a boy" (207). Equally clearly the expectations of the entire International Settlement that Banks will not just solve the mystery surrounding his parents' disappearance but will in the process restore their society to its former moral standards must be a projection of Banks. (The parallel with Ryder here is particularly close.) On the other hand, don't people in imminent danger of a collapse of their civilization regularly project their needs and fantasies onto potential saviors, however unsuitable? We are in that realm Ishiguro explores repeatedly, "where," he says, " you're not quite sure what reality is" (Mudge).
Ishiguro has always suggested a connection in his fiction between the personal and the political personal and political repression, personal and political disintegration. In The Remains of the Day Stevens' personal repression of his emotional needs mirrors the repression implicit in the most oppressive form of nationalism. As Ishiguro has pointed out, the nostalgia for Old England, for a mythical landscape that never actually existed, which is cultivated by Stevens, is also used as a political tool by the political right to oppose trade unions, ban immigrants and blame the permissive sixties for ruining everything (Vorda 139). In When We Were Orphans Banks, according to Ishiguro, "does equate his subjective world crumbling with the world around him hurtling toward the Second World War" (Mudge). Most of Ishiguro's novels center on the period of Western history leading up to World War Two. Ishiguro told one interviewer that he is "drawn to periods of history when the moral values in society have undergone a sudden change" (Bigsby 26). What interests him is not history as such, but the way these critical periods of history expose the fault lines in human nature as instanced by his characters. Ishiguro stresses the need "to make a particular [historical] setting actually take off [. . .] as metaphor and parable" (Vorda 140). The initial draft of A Pale View of Hills was in fact set in England in the present. But he found that he "could write more effectively if [he] changed the setting [to Japan] and put the whole thing at a greater distance" (Bigsby 26). He has pursued this strategy ever since. Both setting and period are for Ishiguro primarily narrative devices rather than objective elements in his fiction. He has continued to employ them figuratively in all his subsequent novels. As we have seen, in When We Were Orphans the state of being orphaned becomes an ahistorical fact of existence. But situating Banks, his principal orphan, in the period leading up to the Second World War enlarges the metaphor. Banks' journey through the inferno of the Japanese-Chinese warfront is both a personal rite of passage and a vivid confrontation with the death and destruction produced by the commercialism and imperialism of the industrial nations prior to the War, death that inevitably adds heavily to the number of children left orphaned. Just as Banks' protected childhood was bought at the price of his mother's servitude to a Chinese warlord, so the protected and privileged existence of the wealthy community living in the International Settlement was bought at the cost of widespread opium addiction and poverty among the Chinese population.
Banks, like Ishiguro, is a transnational torn between two countries and cultures. When Colonel Chamberlain reassures Banks on the boat leaving Shanghai for England that finally he is going home, Banks bursts into tears of rage: "As I saw it, I was bound for a strange land where I did not know a soul, while the city steadily receding before me contained all I knew" (30). Banks is simultaneously exiled from the safety of his childhood and from the city of his birth. What he discovers in the course of the novel is the fact that he cannot go back. No one can, as Colonel Hasegawa proves when he quotes from a Japanese court poet: "our childhood becomes like a foreign land once we have grown" (297). He is permanently alienated from both his old and new life. The orphaning of Banks parallels not just his enforced journey away from his childhood and childhood home and homeland, but also Ishiguro's journey away from narrative realism. As he matured Ishiguro found that the certainties and security of classic realist fiction, like those of childhood, have to be left behind. Banks' mythic journey to the heart of his own repressed fantasies is homologous to Ishiguro's journey as a novelist which he describes as "closing in on some strange, weird territory that for some reason obsesses me" (Vorda 150). Ishiguro's compulsive return to this territory in an attempt "to write out of something that is unresolved somewhere deep down" (Vorda 151) comes strangely close to Banks' obsession compulsion.
As a child Banks, like his friend Akira, suffers from a fear that the reason his parents quarrel is that he isn't English enough. Uncle Philip comforts him by saying that because Banks has grown up in such a multiracial society he is bound to be "a bit of a mongrel" (79). But, Philip reassures him, there would be fewer nationalistic wars if everyone grew up as Banks has done: "So why not become a mongrel? It's healthy" (80). Of course we all know that Ishiguro himself grew up a bit of a mongrel, continuing to observe Japanese customs and speak Japanese at home while absorbing English culture at school and among his friends. From the start Ishiguro has addressed his fiction to an international readership. Ishiguro has said in a number of interviews that his bi-cultural upbringing helped him to appreciate the fact that Britain was no longer a major world power whose customs a writer could assume would be understood by readers beyond Britain. In one interview he explained how this realization inevitably involved his "moving away from realism." Because he can't use the texture of English life in addressing a wider audience, he says, "you start to create a slightly more fabulous world. You start to use the landscape that you do know in a metaphorical way" (Vorda 137-8).
shiguro has said that he found Shanghai "a rich setting to write about the issues of multiculturalism" (Kenney 47). His use of Shanghai in this novel exemplifies this move away from fictional realism. Apart from his use of the International Settlement as a metaphor for childhood (already noted), he turns the larger city of Shanghai in its entirety into a metaphor for the meeting of East and West; of the barbarity of Wang Ku, the Chinese warlord, and of the barbarity of Morganbrook and Byatt, the English firm his father works for that imports opium for profit; of the civility of both Japanese and Chinese officers to Banks, and of the civility of Englishmen like Colonel Chamberlain, Mr. Grayson, and even Uncle Philip to Banks, who frequently is insulting to them. In the very act of confronting each other East and West reveal their essential similarity, just as Akira and Banks share the same fear that they are responsible for the perfectly normal parental disagreements that they witness. Even this comparison of the similarity of Eastern and Western childhood experience is rendered metaphorically, by means of an image that reverberates throughout the novel. Akira quotes a Japanese monk who compared children to the twine that held the slats of a sun-blind together: "it was we children who bound not only a family, but the whole world together" (77). Next Banks uses the same image to explain to Uncle Philip his fear that if he did turn "mongrel" everything might and he hesitates "'Like that blind there'-I pointed-'if the twine broke. Everything might scatter'" (80). Later Banks uses the same image in a wider social context to attempt (unsuccessfully) to reassure an English police inspector who has become disillusioned by a horrific child murder:
'[. . .] And those of us whose duty it is to combat evil, we are . . . how might I put it? We're like the twine that holds together the slats of a wooden blind. Should we fail to hold strong, then everything will scatter.' (144)
But, as one reviewer wrote, Banks is wrong, "for only if the strings give way can the light come in" (Carey). Banks is in effect urging the police inspector to play the (impossible) childish role of binding the adult community thereby keeping the darkness at bay. That double take is not some reviewer's display of his own critical dexterity. It is intrinsic to the way Ishiguro writes. Nothing can be read simply at face value. His use of the full resources of the fiction writer's literary palette forces his readers to attend to every nuance and possible ambiguity in his writing.
That last quotation concerning the need to "combat evil" is representative of one further aspect of Ishiguro's extensive exploitation of the literary in this novel -- his parodic use of the classic detective genre. This is not the first occasion on which he has parodied aspects of an older genre. Reviewing The Remains of the Day, Salman Rushdie called the novel "a brilliant subversion of the fictional modes from which it at first seems to descend" (Rushdie 53). In the case of that novel it descends from the genre of the English country house comedy made popular by P. G. Wodehouse. As Ishiguro explains, having "deliberately created a world which at first resembles that of those writers such as P. G. Wodehouse," he then starts to "undermine this myth and use it in a slightly twisted and different way" (Vorda 140). In When We Were Orphans Ishiguro is parodying a genre that already tends to parody itself the detective novel. Just as Ryder in The Unconsoled deals with his parents' separation from him by what Shaffer calls "a strategy of denial, fantasy, sublimation, and later, music-making" (105), so does Banks do likewise, resorting to detection in place of music-making. Banks' outstanding reputation as a detective can be viewed as his unconscious adult compensation for the impotence of his childhood games of detection. But Ishiguro gives this psychological interpretation a distinctly literary dimension by his parodic references to the classic detective novel featuring the likes of Sherlock Holmes (to whom Banks is jokingly compared eight pages into the book). It is fascinating to learn from Ishiguro that he excised 110 pages from the manuscript in which Banks performed as a classic literary sleuth, because "the pasteboard figures wheeled on 'simply to be suspects' in a traditional whodunnit could never co-exist with more solid characters" (Tonkin 9). What we are left with is an old fashioned detective thrust into a modern world where evil can no longer be confined to a lone murderer uncovered by a Poirot or a Holmes.
W. H. Auden has offered one of the best diagnoses of the formula underlying classic detective fiction:
The magic formula is an innocence which is discovered to contain guilt; then a suspicion of being the guilty one; and finally a real innocence from which the guilty other has been expelled, a cure effected, not by me or my neighbors, but by the miraculous intervention of a genius from outside who removes guilt by giving knowledge of guilt. (158)
In other words the classic detective novel creates a closed world from which evil can be separated and expelled. It represents a primitive desire for a prelapsarian world of innocence. In it evil, like the serpent, is an extraneous element that attempts to invade this paradisal state and can be defeated by the forces of righteousness. This is the ingenuous position Banks adopts throughout the larger part of the novel: "My intention was to combat evil-in particular, evil of the insidious, furtive kind" (22). Ishiguro has commented on the irony "that this genre should have flourished as a kind of therapeutic reaction to the horrors of the Great War" (Tonkin 9). There is something essentially escapist about the entire genre and the inter-war society that made it popular. It is fitting that Banks, like the citizens of the International Settlement, should be pictured as escapist in his / their belief that a solution can be found to the complex contemporary web of evil and corruption in which they are really implicated. This fantasy in which "a greater man," an outsider, would go "to where the heart of the serpent lies and slay the thing once and for all" (144) is essentially a childhood dream still harbored in adult life. Banks' childishness, then, is exposed by Ishiguro as much through his parody of genre as through more psychologically realist means. At the same time Banks is ultimately made to face the far more complex complicity of good with evil - of his father's act of family betrayal, of the villainous warlord's honor in keeping to his bargain to provide young Banks with a generous financial allowance, of the simultaneous savagery and humanity of soldiers fighting on both sides of the Chinese-Japanese war.
Banks also learns to recognize the childishness of his dream of cleansing the world of evil through his work as a detective. In the only case we witness, his attempt to solve the case of his disappearing parents, is hopelessly misguided. It is his expectation that he can eradicate evil from his world that misleads him and makes him miss the vital clues. Or rather it is his proximity to his fictional antecedents Holmes, Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey that blind him to the ubiquity of evil in the modern world he inhabits. "My great vocation got in the way of quite a lot, all in all," Banks reflects in the finale (331). The novel ends with Banks finally at peace with himself and the world, once he has abandoned the attempt to live out the fantasies of his literary predecessors and childhood self. He has at last come to recognize the universality of his orphaned state, to adopt (with the reader) a metaphorical understanding of his circumstances and his world. In typically ambiguous fashion he concludes that for most of us, "our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents" (335-6). Whether this observation represents a deep insight into the workings of our collective psyche or a palliative for Banks' own wasted life is, as always in Ishiguro's skillfully polished work, impossible to determine. What is so satisfying about Ishiguro's fiction is the way he employs fictional means to establish connections between the personal and the social / political, and between the present and the past. It seems inevitable that he should have been drawn to non-realist modes of writing in order to establish the reality of such connections. Like Stephen Dedalus, Ishiguro remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, leaving the esthetic image (as Stephen calls the work of art) to work on us principally in esthetic and imagistic ways.
1. In 1923 Freud renamed what he had called the "ego-ideal" the superego, which he held responsible for secondary repression. The superego arises as the last of the great primal repressions which makes secondary or psychological repression possible. See pages 3-59 of Freud's "The Ego and the Id." Vol. 19 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 24 vols. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953-1974.
2. I am indebted to Michael North at UCLA for his suggestions for changes to an earlier draft of this essay.
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Copyright 2001 Brian H Finney