A Waughian Flavor

When We Were Orphans

A Waughian Flavor

When We Were Orphans

A Waughian Flavor
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 4 2000 2:54 PM

When We Were Orphans

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Dear Jim and Tony,

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I'm with the (mild) knockers. There are different ways of conveying unreliability in the narrator. Ishiguro's way is promising: breaking the book into seven diaristic essay-ettes written by the detective Christopher Banks between 1930 and 1958 and using them to show that he's taking on fresh delusions, not fresh perspective on his childhood loss. But Ishiguro is trying to do too many things and winds up trapped between three genres:

1. The book opens with an almost Waugh-like tone. There is a lot of promising social observation here. It's easy to see how fascinating Christopher would find Sarah Hemmings. She's not beautiful but attractive, "a terrible snob of a new sort," a prophet of the coming replacement of aristocracy by meritocracy. I don't want to give away plot here, but even later in the book, the observations of Uncle Philip, that anti-opium-crusader gone bad, on marriage are dazzlingly sharp: "He adored her. Wanted desperately to make himself good enough for her, and when he found he didn't have it in him, well, he went off. With someone who didn't mind him as he was. It's my belief he just wanted rest. He'd tried so hard for so many years, he just wanted rest." The funniest Waughian moment is when Christopher, wandering through battle-ravaged Shanghai--armed--boasts that he "managed to persuade an old woman to give us drinking water in return for the last bank-notes in my pocket."

2. Then, once the circumstances of Christopher's childhood departure from Shanghai become apparent, we find ourselves in a classic 1930s-1940s British crime thriller along the lines of The Thirty-Nine Steps or The Ministry of Fear.

3. Once Christopher begins his hunt for his parents, it turns into Kafka. (A parallel it was easier to see in the Central-European Unconsoled. I wouldn't call Orphans derivative of that book, exactly, but it does have the same eerily disconnected eye.)

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There's no denying this is a mammothly ambitious novel. But Ishiguro's three priorities--or three "voices"--undermine one another.

First, this doesn't work as a look at society. Something puts me in mind of Anthony Powell here. Maybe it's that, just as A Dance to the Music of Time is often described as Proust in Wodehouse's voice, Orphans reads like Kafka in Wodehouse's voice. But a stronger similarity is that the narrator is the least developed character in the book. That he is insane is about the only thing we find out about Christopher Banks. He has no likes, no dislikes, no passions. He's a device, a mere distorting lens, and the distortion is produced in a heavy-handed literary way. Until the end of the book, it results less often from Christopher misreading evidence than from Ishiguro withholding information. Christopher writes, "that small incident at Tony Keswick's house a week previously ... Sarah probably would not have written the note at all had it not been for what took place between us then." Out with it, man! No one writes diaries this way--and Christopher especially shouldn't since his problem is lunacy, not diffidence. Christopher's not really even a character, and the most promising characters around him can be developed (due to this through-a-glass-darkly perspective) only as thumbnails: Sarah ambitious, Philip feckless, Jennifer resilient.

Second, it doesn't work  as a crime thriller. Mystery and unreliable narrators don't mix. The scene of Christopher's reunion with the gravely wounded Akira is funny in a ghastly way ("In truth, though, my feelings concerning this reunion were, during those moments, of a  complex hue."), but how can it give any sort of genre satisfaction when we don't know whether it actually happened? I think a lot of the foreshadowing is exploitative and too quickly resolved, as when a chapter ends, "It is even possible ... she put this question ... to my father, on another morning altogether, during that argument in the dining room." Reader, turn the page!

Third, I'm not exactly transported by the psycho-philosophical angle. Christopher's problem is that he has been so traumatized by the loss (literally, as it turns out) of his parents that he cannot tell subjective from objective, or more specifically, his own misfortunes from universal evil. This point is interesting as far as it goes, but it doesn't go as far as Ishiguro thinks. And it's so embedded in the (peculiar) circumstances of Christopher's own life that it doesn't resonate with a Kafka-esque universality. His predicament is, as Philip Larkin put it, true only of one man once/ and that one dying.

There are a few more things I'd like to get to tomorrow. I've alluded to Ishiguro's wacky black humor, which is a delight. Here, as in Remains, the fatalism of his books' politics is a real strength, assuring that no ideological "point" smothers the psychological drama. I worry sometimes that Ishiguro falls back on the crime genre to excuse a certain amount of bad, vague writing.

So it looks like Tony gets to be the tiebreaker.

Best to you both,
Chris

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This week, our Book Clubbers tackle Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans, a whodunit in which some of the most crucial developments take place in the detective's own head. Critical reaction so far has been sharply mixed: Does the novel say something profound about memory, or is it just an unsatisfying mystery? Click here to learn more about the critics and here to buy the book.