Early 20th century detective novels served as the inspiration for the masterful new novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the British author best known for his portrait of a loyal butler in The Remains of the Day.
"There's a certain kind of detective fiction that was enormously popular here in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s," Ishiguro says during a recent interview from his home near London. "These days it's a genre that's really looked down upon. It is thought to be kind of facile escapism, and to some extent that's justified. But reading these novels over the distance of time, I found them very poignant, because they were actually written and read immediately after the Great War, by a generation trying to recover from the trauma of that war. That was a generation that knew better than we do today what the real nature of evil and suffering was.
"These detective stories portray a very cozy functioning community where just one thing has gone wrong—somebody has murdered somebody. And all it takes is for this detective to come from outside and unmask the murderer and everything goes back to being rosy again," Ishiguro says. "It occurred to me that it would be interesting to take a detective who seems to come from that world, carrying the tools that would be adequate in that fictional world, and to actually hurl him into the 20th century as it moved toward the second cataclysm."
From this thread of inspiration, Kazuo Ishiguro has created Christopher Banks, the English detective of the 1930s who narrates the new novel, When We Were Orphans. Banks's parents disappeared in Shanghai when he was nine years old, and he is obsessed with solving the riddle of their disappearance. He eventually returns to Shanghai on the eve of World War II and hunts through a nightmarish war-torn city for his parents, whom he believes have been held captive for more than 20 years.
In previous novels, Ishiguro has often explored the intersection of personal and historical events, looking at how, as he says, "The luck of the draw you had historically had profound implications on how your small private life went." In the Booker prize-winning The Remains of the Day, for instance, the butler aspires to serve greatness but instead facilitates his employer's efforts to promote Nazi appeasement.
In When We Were Orphans, however, Ishiguro's uses his historical backdrop in a more psychologically resonant manner. "Here the turbulence of Shanghai is almost like an externalized version of Christopher's sense of the whole world crumbling," Ishiguro says. "Christopher's world as a child collapsed when his parents disappeared. He thinks if he can only go back in time and solve that mystery, the whole world will be put together again. I suppose it's a crazy equation, but Christopher does equate his subjective world crumbling with the world around him hurtling toward the Second World War. He thinks he'll be able to stop that war from happening if he can solve this case. It's difficult to explain, but I think large areas of what we do in the world often come from exactly such a crazy bit of logic, an emotional logic."
And it is the unfolding of this weird logic that makes When We Were Orphans sometimes challenging, and, ultimately, very rewarding. Much of the novel's challenge has to do with the fact that Christopher Banks's account of himself is unreliable. His memory is faulty and ignores, denies, or distorts painful reminders from his past. For a great detective intent on turning up clues, Banks is sometimes clueless, particularly about his own emotional life.
"In each section Banks narrates," Ishiguro says, "Christopher's mind has gone further away from what we call reality. When he goes back to Shanghai, we're really not quite sure if it's the real Shanghai or some mixture of memory and speculation."
Ishiguro often uses an unreliable narrator in his novels; he says he is simply drawn to this kind of writing. "I don't think in any technical sense about an unreliable narrator. Where my writing is pitched is in that realm where you're not quite sure what reality is. Because to some extent, I think that's where we all live—in a bit of a fog. When I write, I do like to narrate from that fairly murky inner point, not from some kind of external camera's eye point."
For a writer so fascinated with the exploration of the inward experience of consciousness, Ishiguro is relatively untroubled by public demands of his growing fame. "Writing is a very introverted activity," he admits. "But these days, in the professional life of a writer, at least a writer who is being marketed to any degree, there is this very extroverted side. You have to tour around doing these public performances, sometimes in front of sizable audiences. I know a lot of my colleagues find that aspect of things difficult. But I never find it very difficult."
Ishiguro says he does occasionally wonder if the growing demand for public literary events presents a kind of threat to literary culture and to the subjective pleasures of reading. "I don't know if this fear is justified," he says. "There needs to be a balance, I suppose. But I sometimes worry that these events where an author reads from his work and answers questions become [all there is to] literary culture. So that when people are interested in Philip Roth's new book, what they think isn't, 'Oh I must go to the bookstore and buy the book and read it;' they think, 'Oh, I wonder if he's coming to our town to do an event, because I'll go and do that.' And that becomes the main excitement about Philip Roth bringing out a new book."
Of course, a lack of actual readers is not a likely fate for When We Were Orphans. After all, Ishiguro's previous novels have each been widely read, reviewed, and discussed, and this is his most accomplished novel yet. And this from someone who had no ambitions to write fiction until he was in his mid-20s.
"Until I was 24," Ishiguro says, "I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. I did the whole thing of sending songs and demo tapes around, and after years of being rejected, I moved from writing songs to writing short stories. When I started to write stories, they started to get published almost immediately. So it was like a lot of things—you do what life allows you to do."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.