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Foreign Affair

There is a moment, early on in Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, When We Were Orphans, that cuts to the heart of everything that’s odd—to use a favorite Ishiguro word—about his not-quite-English fiction. His fussy, agonizingly self-conscious narrator, Christopher Banks, never quite sure of his place in the world around him, steps out of a London restaurant to pursue a woman to whom he’s strongly (if passively) attracted. When he catches up with her on the street, she starts to reminisce about the careless bus rides she took as a girl with her mother, now dead, and asks Banks if he rides the buses too.

I must confess,” he replies, in the overformal English that is an Ishiguro trademark, “I tend to walk or get a cab. I’m rather afraid of London buses. I’m convinced if I get on one, it’ll take me somewhere I don’t want to go, and I’ll spend the rest of the day trying to find my way back.”

I can’t think of any of Ishiguro’s contemporaries in England who would write in quite that tone of voice, let alone have a central character (who’s not supposed to be timorous—Banks, after all, is presented to us, without much evidence, as one of the great detectives of his day) confess to such a fear. Yet the response, with all its overlapping anxieties, of dislocation, of losing time, of being swept up in something outside one’s control, suggests something distinctive about the Ishiguro world, and something that can still make him seem an outsider in the England where he’s lived for forty years.

There is a practical reason why Banks might feel ill at ease in London. Born to an ultra-British family in pre- World War I Shanghai, he’s a relative newcomer in the country of his forebears (and, besides, all his deepest hurts have to do with abandonment). Yet the air of apprehension goes deeper than that. The terror of doing the wrong thing, the elaborate unease attending even the most everyday of activities—take one wrong step and you’ll get lost—the sense of being always on uncertain ground lie at the heart of Ishiguro’s poignant and often anguished vision. In his previous novel, The Unconsoled, he gave us 535 pages about being lost in a foreign place where his narrator couldn’t read the signs.

When We Were Orphans may well be Ishiguro’s most capacious book so far, in part because it stitches together his almost microscopic examination of self-delusion, as it plays out in lost men, with a much larger, often metaphorical look at complacency on a national scale. The story is told in the slightly priggish voice of Banks, and filtered through his highly fallible eyes and memory; a typical Ishiguro protagonist, he keeps assuring us how well-adjusted and popular he is even as the prose reveals him to be “slightly alarmed” and “somewhat irritated,” irked and “somewhat overwrought.” Living on the fringes of London society in the early 1930s, in—as he takes pains to tell us—a “tasteful” Victorian house with “snug armchairs” and an “oak bookcase,” he longs to have some standing in the world. “My intention,” he declares with a typical (and dangerous) mix of innocence and self-satisfaction, “was to combat evil.”

More to the point, like all Ishiguro’s main characters, he is a foreigner wherever he happens to find himself, homeless even among those snug armchairs: in the Shanghai of his boyhood he is taken to be an Englishman, and in England he is taken to be an odd man out from China. Utterly in the dark, he searches and searches the small print of the world around him for clues about how to act. (Ishiguro has spoken touchingly of how he, too, arriving in England from Nagasaki at the age of five, learned to “become” an English boy by sedulously copying the sounds he heard around him.) And yet, of course, the very deliberation Banks brings to every transaction ensures that he will never be a part of it. Much as Stevens, the butler in Ishiguro’s best-known novel, The Remains of the Day, laboriously practiced his “bantering” to fit in with the class he served, so Banks, before attending a party, “rehearsed over and over how I would—modestly, but with a certain dignity—outline my ambitions.”

It is the foreigner’s plight, perhaps, to find himself a detective, as well as an actor, always on the lookout for signs and prompts, and Ishiguro, who is never careless with his details, actually dares to make Banks a would-be Sherlock Holmes (though we have to take much of his professional success on trust, since we hear much less about his job than about his advancement in society). The ironies of a detective who fails to make out even the most fundamental truths of his own life and of the world in which he lives are soon enough exhausted. (As perhaps are those of a character repeatedly complaining about being misunderstood coming from an author who wrote a five-hundred-page novel in part to show that he wasn’t a straight realist.)

Banks’s overwhelming concern, though, even in London, is to try to make sense of what happened to him as a boy, in the International Settlement in Shanghai, and over and over he returns to haunted memories of that time. One day, seemingly out of the blue, his father (working for a British trading company here disguised as “Morganbrook and Byatt”) goes to work and never returns; a little later, his beloved mother, often recalled laughing in a swing, also vanishes, leaving Banks, at the age of ten, alone in a very foreign country, before being shipped off to an aunt’s house in far-off England. His one playmate in Shanghai, constantly remembered, is the six-year-old next door, Akira Yamashita, with whom he seems mostly to share a sense of disconnection. “Christopher. You not enough Englishman,” says the Japanese boy (in his to me implausible English); but Akira, too, returning to Japan, is “mercilessly ostracised for his ‘foreignness.”’

Anyone who’s read an Ishiguro novel before—and even those who haven’t—will feel at home with the sadnesses of a pathetically self-involved character longing to keep the truth of his loneliness at bay and training a magnifying glass, in this case quite literally, on the alien world that surrounds him: part of Ishiguro’s skill is to bring the senses of “pathetically” together (in characters who are moving without always being likable). Yet this relatively precise and housebound story breaks into something much bigger when, in 1937, the woman Banks admires (from a distance), another orphan, called Sarah Hemmings, suddenly goes off with her new husband to Shanghai. Abruptly, and more than a little belatedly, Banks decides that he must go there, too, to solve the case of his parents’ disappearance, he says (though that happened twenty-five years before), and to bring order, as he somehow believes, to a disintegrating world. When he returns to the lovingly recalled place he thinks of as home, it is, of course, to find it a blacked-out chaos, with Japanese soldiers assaulting the city even as local Communists and the Kuomintang conduct a brutal civil war.

Up to this point, roughly halfway through the book, the reader could be forgiven for thinking he’s reading Remains of the Day Revisited: a straightforward (and expert) portrait of a man possessed by truths he can’t acknowledge, and missing the boat at every turn (the metaphor becomes an actual event here). Yet as soon as it returns to Shanghai, the narrative acquires a political fury that is not shy of using the word “evil.” Ishiguro has long turned a shrewd and attentive eye—a foreigner’s eye, really—on the British specimens he has found himself among, and in The Remains of the Day he famously exposed the blind loyalties and vanities of a butler as a way of pointing up the naiveté of a whole society that invited Nazis to its dinner parties in the Thirties. Here, the assault on perfidious Albion and its “air of refined duplicity” becomes pitiless.

British traders like Banks’s father were, of course, deriving much of their income from smuggling Indian opium into China, which served the second function of keeping the local populace helplessly sedated. Yet as Banks continues his investigations, he finds that the corruption goes well beyond that: British companies like Morganbrook and Byatt (which seems to stand in for a well-known British trading house still powerful in Hong Kong) were dealing with warlords, and, in some cases, sending others off to their deaths in order to protect themselves. And when Banks arrives in a crumbling Shanghai, it is to find the members of the international elite complaining about their chauffeurs and languidly comparing the shells outside to “shooting stars” as they watch, through a ballroom window, Japanese warships turn the city to rubble.

Banks is hardly the most assertive of souls, but even he is moved to “a wave of revulsion” by the studied obliviousness:

During this fortnight I have been here, throughout all my dealings with these citizens, high or low, I have not witnessed—not once—anything that could pass for honest shame. Here, in other words, at the heart of the maelstrom threatening to suck in the whole of the civilised world, is a pathetic conspiracy of denial; a denial of responsibility which has turned in on itself and gone sour, manifesting itself in the sort of pompous defensiveness I have encountered so often.

The point is so alive to him that, fifty-eight pages later, he delivers a version of the same tirade, even repeating (a rarity in Ishiguro’s perfectionist prose) the phrase about the lack of “honest shame.”

And as the novel moves out of Banks’s head, and out into the wider world, it also, paradoxically perhaps, rises out of domestic realism to an often daring surrealism. (At the white-tie gathering in the Shanghai ballroom, Banks is actually handed a pair of opera glasses with which to inspect the war outside. “Most interesting,” he observes, as shells destroy the city. “Are there many casualties, do you suppose?”) Nearly all of Ishiguro’s fiction is set just before or after war, the reverberations of a larger struggle rumbling underneath the action like a distant train; and his great politi-cal theme, nationalism, offers us the shadow side, as it were, of his protagonists’ longing to belong. Indeed, the heart of Ishiguro’s strength is to bring the two forces into intricate collision, and to show how displaced characters like Banks, precisely because they want to be part of a larger whole, and to serve a cause, attach themselves to the very forces that are tearing the world apart.

Here, as Banks stumbles out into a derelict city of corpses, struggling unsuccessfully to trace his parents in the midst of all the fighting, it feels almost as if Ishiguro is daring himself to break out of his habitual control and move onto uncharted ground. The writing begins to feel dreamed as much as plotted, and there is an exhilarating sense of its taking on a life of its own and pulling its author into places where he hadn’t expected to find himself. (In that small moment on the London street, it’s worth noting, Banks finally does get on the bus.)

In the most remarkable scenes in the book, lit up by a sense of outrage and social concern unlike anything Ishiguro has given us before (though he began his professional life working with the homeless), Banks follows a policeman into a broom cupboard and emerges through it into history. All around him is a wasteland that looks like “some vast, ruined mansion with,” in his characteristic phrase, “endless rooms,” and the all but unimaginable suffering and poverty of the “warrens” that the British have taken pains not to see. The very inadequacy of the society detective in the face of real life becomes as harrowing as it is painful. “‘Look here…All of this’—I gestured at the carnage…—’it’s awfully bad luck.”’

Abandoning solid ground like this, for writer and character alike, clearly comes with risks. Ishiguro’s speech sometimes has to me the feeling of having been as much worked up from research as everything else here (“Look, old chap…I’m going along tonight to a bash,” says one character), and as Banks moves through the ruins of the city, more than ever subject to the foreigner’s inability to tell friend from foe, or to see the larger picture, some of the dialogue sounds as if it had been mugged up from some old British movie about keeping a stiff upper lip. “Now, look here,” Banks tells a dying Japanese soldier (after attending to his wounds with his trusty magnifying glass), “I don’t want any of that nonsense. You’re going to be fit as a fiddle in no time.” The soldier, whom Banks takes to be his old friend Akira, grunts, and, recalling his distant son, says, “You tell him. I die for country. Tell him, be good to mother. Protect. And build good world.” Sometimes, in this book, it is only the Japanese who don’t sound Japanese.

Yet for all the occasional awkwardness, the mixing of effects—the poignancy and absurdity of country-house manners brought to people fighting with meat cleavers and spades—turns Ishiguro’s gift for strangeness to powerful advantage. “Most annoyingly,” Banks says, while recalling stumbling through the debris with the dying soldier, “my right shoe had split apart, and my foot was badly gashed, causing a searing pain to rise with each step.” That mix of “annoyingly” and “searing” catches Banks to perfection: it is his very inability to find the right words for the situation that makes him touching.

The denouement of Banks’s private drama is effected rather too tidily—Ishiguro always has to fight the temptation to be too considerate to his readers—and the creaking of the stage machinery intensifies when a character we’ve seen described as an “admirable beacon of rectitude” suddenly tears off his mask to reveal a “haunted old man, consumed with self-hatred.” Ishiguro’s writing derives its dreamlike power from dealing with events that are unresolved, mysterious, and in the shadows; when the bewilderment is cleared up, the spell begins to fade.

Although The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize and became a huge commercial success worldwide, Ishiguro himself, with his magnifying-glass alertness, referred to it sometimes as a “wind-up toy”; and as if in response to a book that could be read in only one way, he followed it up with an allegory of estrangement, The Unconsoled, that was indecipherable even upon rereading. In When We Were Orphans, the reader can sense his having broken through his self-consciousness to activate a passion that has previously been submerged; and even as Banks’s attempts to keep up appearances, like his willful blindness, nicely reflect those of the society around him, the book records unsparingly how the larger world’s machinations put all his innocence to shame.

The venturing onto foreign ground never fully sidesteps melodrama (“What you just saw in Chapei,” a Japanese colonel says, with unlikely fluency, “it is but a small speck of dust compared to what the world must soon witness!”). And Ishiguro’s tendency to be overpunctilious is not entirely transcended: in the middle of the book, Banks suddenly adopts a ten-year-old Canadian girl, who is so peripheral to what follows that she seems only a narrative device—another orphan, another foreigner, a symbol of the responsibilities Banks neglects and a way of tying pieces of the plot together. Yet this very unevenness can sometimes seem an act of courage, in an author so precise, and mark a kind of advance, after the occasionally overworked perfection of books like The Remains of the Day.

More importantly, Ishiguro uses the precedent of the International Settlement as a way of highlighting, and questioning, the very mingling of races that is an ever more pressing issue in the global diaspora. Salman Rushdie, in his celebrations of the new deracination, looks back to Moorish Spain to show how different cultures can live together in relative harmony; Michael Ondaatje, in The English Patient, imagines a desert in which characters spin around one another like separate planets, no national divisions visible in the sand. Ishiguro, however, is on this theme, as on most others, notably less sanguine than his contemporaries (his father, it’s interesting to note, grew up in the International Settlement). National identity is the language and the currency we use, he suggests, and even Akira and Banks, at the age of six, refer all their triumphs at games to being Japanese or being English (even as they compete to say “old chap” in what they take to be the right way).

In one of the most reverberant moments in the book—as well as the strangest and most typical—the child Banks asks a friend of his parents, “Uncle Philip, I was just wondering. How do you suppose one might become more English?” The older man, sounding like many people we know today, replies that “mongrels” like Banks, growing up in the midst of many cultures, may be lucky enough to exist outside traditional affiliations, and even may bring an end to war. Then, stopping, he corrects himself. “People need to feel they belong. To a nation, to a race. Otherwise, who knows what might happen? This civilisation of ours, perhaps it’ll just collapse. And everything scatter, as you put it.”

When We Were Orphans traces the collapse of a civilization and the scattering of just about everything, and shows how the very wish to belong is complicit in that unraveling (as it describes how the only home Banks knows turns into a maze of refugees). And in its sadness, as in its willingness to stretch and experiment with realism, it reminds us that Ishiguro is at heart as much a European as an English writer.1 In many respects, in fact, the novelist he most resembles is that other disciple of Kafka’s, living in England for thirty years without ever becoming English, W.G. Sebald. Except for The Unconsoled (the perfect title for all of Sebald’s work), Ishiguro’s writing has always been concerned with how war affects those not directly involved in it—the theme that Sebald has made his obsession—and how we try to get around all the things that we do not want to say (or know). It is a curious coincidence, perhaps, that both of them have been conducting their inquiries into the end of Empire in an England where anti-Japanese and anti-German sentiment still run high almost sixty years after the last war.

When Banks finally enters his family’s house in Shanghai, he finds it made over by its new Chinese owners. When Sebald, in Vertigo,2 returns to his hometown in Germany, he can revisit his family’s old living room only by checking into a local inn. For both these writers, it seems, foreignness in the modern floating world begins at home.

  1. 1

    It’s interesting, in the context of this book, to think of Kipling, also sent from Asia to England at the age of five to go to school. For similar reasons, no doubt, he, too, endowed many of his leading characters with the status of orphans, and yet in Kipling characters like Kim have a veritable surfeit of spiritual fathers; in Ishiguro, the orphans are always alone.

  2. 2

    New Directions, 2000.

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