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It's all about psychology and memory
on June 8, 2002
Christopher Banks is an unusual detective in Kazuo Ishiguro¡¦s latest novel, When We Were Orphans. The story is not about Banks¡¦s investigation of a shrewdly planned murder or a cunning theft; he is attempting to solve the greatest mystery in his life: the disappearance of his parents when he was a boy in early twentieth century Shanghai. Certainly not a conventional adventure story, it nonetheless has the feature of a mystery tale ¡V one can never know the truth, or at least, a portion of the truth, until the last pages.
When the novel opens in 1930, Christopher Banks has become a renowned private detective in London. His first person narration begins innocently enough, with a classically correct, ¡¥realistic¡¦ fashion:
It was the summer of 1923, the summer I came down from Cambridge, when despite my aunt¡¦s wishes that I return to Shropshire, I decided my future lay in the capital and took up a small flat at Number 14b Bedford Gardens in Kensington.
This opening echoes that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle¡¦s A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story: ¡§In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London ¡K¡¨, and both narratives similarly give an impression of rational, orderly narrative to the readers, fitting for a detective novel. Indeed, our principal character Banks has mentioned reading about the ¡§foggy streets of the Conan Doyle mysteries¡¨. Banks¡¦s account is not unlike that of Dr. Watson, with a matter-of-fact style, and complete with the most ¡¥correct¡¦ English attitude.
¡§I¡¦d like to oblige you, Miss Hemmings. But unfortunately I¡¦ve already replied to the organisers some days ago. I fear it¡¦ll be rather late to inform them of my wish to bring a guest ¡K¡¨
Such a storytelling manner makes prominent Christopher Banks¡¦s ¡¥Englishness¡¦ ¡V a theme which is inevitably linked with the questions of identity and sense of belonging. In this quotation Banks is rejecting an unreasonable request put forward by Sarah Hemmings, an ambitious woman who aspires to join the upper class. In the course of the events they will become familiar and even intimate with each other. Sarah is to become a catalyst in prompting Banks to recall his childhood.
Banks¡¦s father, who works for a British company involved in the opium business, disappears when he is nine, and foul play is suspected. The young Banks and his Japanese friend, Akira, stage the missing father adventure time and time again in their role-playing games. However, Banks does not reveal too much about his feelings towards the supposed kidnapping of his father. ¡§I do not remember much about the days immediately following my father¡¦s disappearance¡¨, so he says. This nicely illustrates a continuous deliberate suppression of emotion in Banks¡¦s narrative. His true emotions are more subtly hinted at, or sometimes through the discrepancies between Banks¡¦s words and other characters¡¦ accounts of certain events. This gives rise to doubts about Banks¡¦s reliability as a narrator. After all, human memory is fallible, and this factor, coupled with a narrator who may have a tendency to distort his memories, readers are presented with the sometimes difficult but stimulating task of answering the question, what has really happened?
What happens after the disappearance of the father is certain ¡V his mother, a social activist against opium trade, also unaccountably disappears, apparently having been kidnapped. This shatters the boyish Banks¡¦s hope of living in Shanghai forever and he is sent to England, his ¡¥home¡¦, to stay with an aunt. His eventual return to Shanghai is at least partially prompted by, again, Sarah, who is to accompany her elderly statesman husband to Shanghai, which leads to the question of whether Banks is in love with her or not.
Flipping back to page one at this moment, one will find that such a ¡¥normal¡¦ opening has done nothing to prepare unwary readers for the developments in this later part of the story, beginning with Part Four ¡§Cathay Hotel, Shanghai, 20th September 1937¡¨. Without warning the world of reality, where reason inhabits, collapses. Very often the situation is incredulous or even outright ridiculous. Readers need to confront a different Banks here: his ¡¥logic¡¦ is so peculiar that there are moments when he seems to be on the verge of insanity. Hardly anyone doubts Banks¡¦s ability to rescue his parents, who are still believed to be in captivity somewhere in Shanghai, after almost a quarter of a century. Needless to say, Banks does not question the possibility of a satisfying conclusion. When his investigation brings him outside the International Settlement into the war-torn Shanghai, he rescues ¡¥Akira¡¦, but again, it is dubious whether that Japanese soldier is really Akira. It is near the end of his adventures in Shanghai that reasons seem to resuscitate and an appalling truth is revealed.
This change from ¡¥normal¡¦ to ¡¥abnormal¡¦ is exactly the most brilliant point about this novel. The transition is so smooth that one can¡¦t find the joints, rather like a successful surgery that leaves no scar. This shift should come as a great surprise to readers. Some may at first find this uncomfortable, especially for those who are expecting to see a cool Sherlock Holmes at work, and Ishiguro does raise such expectations in the ¡¥realistic¡¦ first part. Nevertheless the ¡¥absurd¡¦ part opens up possibility for readers to think about the way memory works, and readers are presented the psychological burden of a person with a traumatic childhood ¡V in the poignant closing paragraph Banks realizes that it is the fate of orphans to ¡§chas[e] through long years the shadows of vanished parents¡¨.
Overtly a detective story, When We Were Orphans is above all a psychological journey of a character who courageously confronts his past. With an ingenious plot and memorable characters, this is a novel of memory par excellence.