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…

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