November 28, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000.
Christopher Banks, the narrator of Ishiguro's complex novel involving the opium trade and England's promotion of it in China, the Sino-Japanese War, the British colonial life in Shanghai from the turn of the century until the outbreak of World War II and Banks' own search for his true home, the Shanghai of his childhood memories in the period just before the beginning of World War I, moves through the novel and his memories, which gradually include painful revelations and understandings that had remained buried in the haze of happy illusions.
Banks is obsessed with finding his childhood friend, who remains in Shanghai while Banks is whisked away to England after the mysterious disappearance of his parents. Banks deals with his uprooting by wearing blinders and remembering his happy past while attending boarding school and then university. No other friend materializes to take the place of the neighbor Akira, a Japanese boy whose father also works for the British Company with Banks' father. The memory of their favorite game, playing detective, influences Banks in his determination to become a detective, a career in which he succeeds so well that he becomes famous. His fame does not relieve his loneliness and isolation. Speculating on his evening at the Meredith Foundation dinner, he reveals his uneasiness in close contact with people: "I was, for one thing, reminding myself that my recent triumphs had more than entitled me to my invitation; that far from questioning my presence at such a gathering, other guests were likely to press me eagerly for inside information regarding my cases. I was reminding myself too of my resolution not to leave the proceedings prematurely, even if it meant putting up with the odd period of standing about alone."
It is at this dinner that he has a close and difficult encounter with Sarah Hemmings, another orphan who reaches out to him but who frightens him away with questions about his friend Akira. Disturbing the carefully preserved memory of his great friend "slightly alarmed" Banks, suggesting that there is something in that memory that must not be uncovered.
Sarah becomes the symbol of what Banks will not recognize in his search for "truth" and solutions to the mystery of his parents' disappearance. He misses living; his lifelong search for his parents and his past blocks his development as a full human being. Trying desperately to maintain his control over his quest for his parents, he quite simply never sees the possibility of finding his own place in the world but continues to look at the past, becoming a problem-solving voyeur.
The world of Shanghai in the early part of the century and in the 1930's gives the novel an unreal atmosphere that corresponds to Banks' lost past. Shanghai as the child Banks knew it is going to disappear as completely as his parents did. Making a trip to Hong Kong with his adopted daughter, another orphan, he becomes nostalgic: "I suppose I did appreciate here and there--in the Chinese signs outside the shops, or just in the sight of the Chinese going about their business in the markets--some vague echo of Shanghai." He compares his feeling to seeing some similarity in a "a distant cousin of a woman I once loved; whose gestures, facial expressions, little shrugs nudge the memory, but who remains, overall, an awkward, even grotesque parody of a much-cherished image." This comparison is the closest Banks comes to admitting an attachment to another person.
Banks' relationship with his adopted daughter is pleasant and loving but at the same time distanced and vague. He worries about his absence from her when he was on his great mission to Shanghai and about her life as an adult, which seems full of disappointments, but he does not see the need to spend time with her, to spend himself on her. On a visit to her place in the country, he apologizes: "I'm sorry," I said to her, "I've not been up here much recently. I suppose it's been a good few months now. Can't think what I've been up to."
After his great career, his courage in risking his life in Shanghai during the war and his successful end to the search for his parents, he appears not to be able to understand what he has "been up to."
This novel combines the story of the narrator's life with politics and history and the effects of the two on helpless victims of clashes between powers. There is a strong moral dimension at the heart of the story. Banks reports, "For the truth is, the longer I had been in Shanghai, the more I had come to despise the so-called leaders of the community. Almost every day my investigations had revealed yet another piece of negligence, corruption or worse on their part down the years. And yet in all the days since my arrival, I had not come across one instance of honest shame, a single acknowledgement that were it not for the prevarications, the short-sightedness, often the downright dishonesty of those left in charge, the situation would never have reached its present level of crisis."
The mystery of Banks' parents remains the unifying thread that rules Banks life and his story. The self-revelations that occur in his narrative present a portrait of a tragic figure, created by Ishaguro's insight into human nature and his amazing control of the evidence he uncovers in solving the mystery of Banks' personality. Describing his life in London after his retirement, he insists that he has found a home there. In spite of his claim, he concludes, "Nevertheless, there are those times when a sort of emptiness fills my hours and I shall continue to give Jennifer's invitation serious thought."
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