When We Were Orphans | Kazuo Ishiguro

I wanted and expected to enjoy When We Were Orphans, it being the few novels concerning Asia by the first Asian Nobel Literature laureate who writes in English. Yet whereas Ishiguro is usually either a hit or mild miss for me, this one ended up being miles off the mark. According to the Guardian, Ishiguro once said of this Booker-nominated work: “It’s not my best book.” And as with most things Ishiguro says and writes, this is a gross understatement.

Ishiguro’s signature unreliable narrator is at work here, this time in the form of Christopher, an English boy raised in the Shanghai International Settlement whose parents’ mysterious disappearances made him an effective orphan and drove him to become a professional detective. The narrative shuttles between Christopher’s childhood and orphaned London life, leading up to his eventual return to Shanghai in search of his long-lost parents. While Christopher’s self-alleged competence and fame as an investigator leads us to suspend our disbelief that the disappearance of two white people in China can yet be resolved some fifteen-odd years later by their non-Chinese-speaking son, the suspension grows increasingly unsustainable as the son grows increasingly incompetent and self-absorbed.

As we arrive in China with middle-aged Christopher, we assume that he has some impressive hand of cards that he is waiting to play at the right moment—some detective work concerning international relations and opium politics that he has been preparing for decades. It is, after all, the Sherlockian/Poirotian tradition for the detective to withhold his theory until the end. We assume that, much as Christopher attempts to hide from readers his crush on Sarah, a power-grubbing Englishwoman whose only remarkable trait is her orphanhood, he is likewise withholding revelations about his parents’ disappearances until he can act. We are, however, wrong.

[Below are some mild spoilers made vague.] In the climax of the novel, Christopher demands that the combattants of the Second Sino-Japanese War call a ceasefire so they can all help him find his parents. He looks around at the bullet-riddled buildings, whose only remaining occupants are soldiers and corpses, and is both certain that his parents are still alive within and confused that the fighting Asians aren’t obeying his every word. “Friend!” he cries, gesturing to himself, flabbergasted. He projects Asian faces from his past onto the Asian faces of dying soldiers; he panics because he’s in a hurry to get under Sarah’s skirts; he single-handedly causes a bureaucratic maelstrom for the local warring government; he finds out all his feeble inferences are completely, completely wrong. He has been so far off the trail that he may as well have been doggy-paddling in the Yellow Sea all along. He is either the worst detective in literary history or he’s not a detective at all—just a deeply delusional, dangerously egotistical narrator with a P.I. pipe dream.

At this point, we can only interpret this as an elaborate work of absurdism. We can only assume that Ishiguro is satirizing the egotism of fictional European detectives who carry the White Man’s Burden of Solving All the Non-White Men’s Petty Crimes. Yet Ishiguro makes this interpretation difficult by packing in serious themes of suicide, adultery, and sexual trafficking at the very end—as though making a final mad dash to add some semblance of reality. This, however, contradicts the reading of the whole book as reverse-racism satire, leaving me more confused than ever.

In short, I can only understand this book as a parody, but to the end it doggedly insists on its earnestness. It is, as a result, incomprehensible.