- Vintage Canada 2001 ISBN 0-676-97306-X
Read from January 19th to February 2nd 2016-02-03
Still under the unforgettable impression of The Buried Giant, I admit that Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans did not live up to my expectations. Not entirely, at least. Oh, I enjoyed his habitual elusive style, also noticing the clever development of the theme announced by the title – the uprooting – and I couldn’t find any fault with the construction of the unreliable narrator also. It is the fable (in the sense given by the Russian formalists) I was disappointed with, the fable that, as someone very appropriately pointed out, is “too short and too spare for the content it hopes and promises to deliver.” (Valerie Jaffe, Fatal Ambition: Kazuo Ishiguro’s When WeWere Orphans ). However, two of three, that is style and narrative voice versus fable it is not so bad. Not so bad at all. Let’s see.
As usual while reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose what you notice first is not the story per se but the telling of the story. Many a critic tried to explain its particular, inimitable accent. Some of them, like Michael Gorra in his insightful review The Case of the missing Childhood, think this is due to his concern with small details in a strange impersonal way. Others, like Philip Hensher in The Guardian, are simply annoyed at the formality the author treats the English language with, observing that the fact that he doesn’t employ phrasal verbs almost anywhere reminds of the rigid and overcorrect speaking of someone whose English is not the mother tongue. And of course, there are who are intrigued by the detached and clipped tone “that seems the very embodiment of English propriety and circumspection”, like Michiko Kakutani, in his rather acid review, The Case He Can't Solve: A Detective's Delusions.
Opinions like the above ones and many others, either in admiring or exasperated tones, have been trying for a long time (since the publication of Ishiguro’s first book, I think) to define a style that stubbornly remains ineffable, bewitching the reader with its calm and cool flow that promises to reveal a realm of secrets it never properly reveals, like the ancient incantations whose sense was hidden rather in their rhythm and timing that in the words. A style, as I’ve already said, elusive and subtly elegiac, that presents the events through steamed glasses you would like to wipe a little, for you are never sure about the true form of the shadows that move on the other part:
How fond I was of Uncle Philip! And is there any reason to suppose he was not genuinely fond of me? It is perfectly possible that at that stage, he wished nothing but good for me, that he had no more inkling than I did of the course things would take.
And the stylistic elements employed to create this magic, uncertain atmosphere are so simple they seem childish when you try to isolate them – some exclamation, some rhetorical question, some detail included between dashes, with almost no figure of speech except some epithet (and mainly the common one – “good”, “right”, “great”, etc.) or some prosaic enumeration, but you still have to look hard for a metaphor, for often it is only the bare word that keeps showing, with no flourishing at all. And yet, how the strange melody of the text croons to our ears, our eyes, our soul, forever escaping our scholarly attempt to explain it:
It is now late – a good hour has passed since I set down that last sentence – and yet here I am, still at my desk. I suppose I have been turning over these recollections, some of which I had not brought to the fore of my mind for many years. But I have also been looking ahead, to the day when I eventually return to Shanghai, to all the things Akira and I will do there together.
The other strength of Ishiguro’s narrative is as inexplicable, since the unreliable narrator has been used from the antiquity, and you hardly expect to discover something new about it. And yet, here it is another concept Ishiguro puts his stamp on. Christopher Banks, like the butler in The Remains of the Day, is another distorted mirror put between the reader and the plot. His serious, crusty, unimaginative tone is in a weird contrast with events so spectacular that lack credibility and although he seems so delusional you doubt almost everything he says, especially when you realize he feeds not only the others but himself with half truths, you are still unsure whether he should be put among heroes or antiheroes, among the tragic or the ridiculous, that is to believe him or not, all along feeling that you should believe him because if you stopped blindly following him around some secret of the universe, some meaning of all things would be lost forever for you:
I suppose I must then have told her a few further things from the past. I did not reveal anything of any real significance, but after parting with her this afternoon – we eventually got off in New Oxford Street – I was surprised and slightly alarmed that I had told her anything at all. After all, I have not spoken to anyone about the past in all the time I have been in this country, and as I say, I had certainly never intended to start doing so today.
The only thing I did not like very much was, as I said, the fable. Here there are, stuffed together, higgledy-piggledy, a thriller (the parents’ kidnapping), a detective story (with the hero playing the role of the famous detective), a social novel (Sarah’s story), a political one (the Sino-Japanese war) and a psychological one (how the world appears to the orphans Christopher, Jennifer and Sarah). But this gathering, instead of conferring complexity to the novel, seems like a cluster of too many plots with too little development, a botch with no purpose at all, stopping short whenever you think you could read it as a satire, a parody or a fantasy, without offering any other choice to tie the loose ends. In this way it denies the logic of the narration, a fundamental rule of any fable. Not to speak about the syntax of the individual, which is not always very clear either, as Valerie Jaffe very accurately observed: “Plot and suspense are sacrificed to the psychology of the main character precisely as the psychology of the other, not unimportant characters is sacrificed to ploy and suspense.”
Nevertheless, the magic never lets you truly go, and the final image, of an old, pitiful character, a failure of a man haunting the London streets like a stranger after all these years is beautifully pathetic and touchingly unforgettable:
I do not wish to appear smug, but drifting through my days here in London I believe I can indeed own up to a certain contentment. I enjoy my walks in the parks, I visit the galleries, and increasingly of late I take a foolish pride in sifting through old newspapers reports of my cases in the Reading Room at the British Museum. This city, in other words, has come to be my home and I should not mind if I have to live out the rest of my days here. Nevertheless, there are those times when a sort of emptiness fills my hours and I shall continue to give Jennifer’s invitation serious thought.