When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Alfred A. Knopf 2000 338 pp. 25.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Living in exile from one’s own emotions has been a preoccupation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction, and in When We Were Orphans he returns again to this painful, though illuminating theme.  This, his latest novel, traces the consequences of succeeding at being British and failing at being human.

In 1930s London, Christopher Banks proudly wears his fame as a private detective, “the most brilliant investigative mind in England,” as he moves through high society.  Although born in Shanghai, since his emigration to England as a child he has successfully erased any trace of his colonial heritage.  At St. Dunstan’s school he proudly notes,

“I rapidly absorbed the other gestures, turns of phrase and exclamations popular among my peers, as well as grasping the deeper mores and etiquettes prevailing in my new surroundings.”

This pride in his cultural ventriloquism may puzzle readers, until we learn of Banks’ childhood in Shanghai, and how he absorbed the lesson taught to him by his young friend, the Japanese Akira Yamashita: Akira, in a sad delusion that he passes on to Christopher, believes that if doesn’t become as Japanese as he can, he will be taken away from his parents. 

Christopher sets about to “become British,” yet at age ten, one unspeakable trauma occurs on the heels of another.  First, his father leaves for work one day and never returns.   While working for “the great trading company of Butterfield and Swire,” his father’s principal professional activity had been to import “Indian opium into China in such massive quantities [that it] brought untold misery and degradation to a whole nation.”  Foul play by the drug lords is immediately suspected.

This drug trade was fiercely and vocally opposed by Christopher’s mother and his “Uncle” Philip, who ran “a philanthropic organization called The Sacred Tree dedicated to improving conditions in the Chinese areas of the city.”  However, soon after his father’s disappearance, Christopher is horrified to find that his mother has vanished as well.  Orphaned at age ten, he is sent to England, where he becomes a proper English boy, and then, in early adulthood, develops into the great Holmesean detective.

At a party he meets, and becomes instantly infatuated with Sarah Hemmings, thought by some to be “a terrible snob of the new sort; that she did not consider a person worthy of respect unless he or she possessed a celebrated name.”

Banks pursues her with middling success until he returns to war-torn Shanghai, dedicating himself to locating his lost parents.  In pursuing his quest, however, he begins to lose his mind.

This book is beautifully written, but falters somewhat on Banks’ return to Shanghai, where Ishuguro’s formidable descriptive powers fail to evoke Shanghai as a battlefield between the Chinese and the Japanese. 

In The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the perfect English butler, fulfills his professional obligations so well he extinguished his emotional being.  While it may seem that both Stevens and Christopher Banks represent Ishiguro’s critique of being British, the situation for the characters is more complicated than just trying to fit in.

Ishiguro’s individuals don’t impersonate the British, they imitate their own emotionally remote version of what they, in a type of British interior exile, imagine “British” to mean.  Their devastating miscalculation—that outward emotional control is to be sought at the expense of everything else—manifests itself in their neurotic behavior, that both pains them and wounds others.

Young Christopher Banks sought to become a detective because he was convinced that “the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.”  But, while master of clues that revealed murderers, he is oblivious to what is slowly killing him.  Satisfied with clear-cut solutions to crimes, he perpetrates one on himself, turning away from personal revelations in favor of the misleading simplicity of righting wrongs.  When We Were Orphans is another of Ishiguro’s cautionary tales about the danger of being alive to the world, yet dead inside.