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Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Return to Ishiguro's fog-bound world

Staff writer
WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS, by Kazuo Ishiguro. London: Faber & Faber, 313 pp., 16.99 British pounds.

Ever since "A Pale View of Hills" (1982), Kazuo Ishiguro has been playing games with his readers' minds. Some people find this infuriating, some fascinating, as the mixed reception accorded his novels -- even the Booker Prize-winning "The Remains of the Day" (1989) -- attests. But there is no doubting the skill with which he manipulates reality. Perhaps no writer in English has so completely mastered the art of the unreliable narrator since Vladimir Nabokov let Humbert Humbert loose in the pages of "Lolita."

On the face of it, "When We Were Orphans" does not plunge the reader into as phantasmagoric a world as Ishiguro's last novel, "The Unconsoled," in which it was reliably known that the hero had suffered a lapse, actually a complete collapse, of memory and was possibly schizophrenic. "When We Were Orphans" (ah, but who are "we"?) has as a narrator a man whose powers of recall are not just intact, but seemingly total, and well under control. Unlike the emotional, piano-playing Ryder of "The Unconsoled," Christopher Banks is that coolest and most rational of customers, a detective (not a modern, TV-style detective, some rumpled employee of the local police force, or even a hard-boiled private eye a la Philip Marlowe, but an educated English gentleman-detective in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes.) At last, you might think, Ishiguro has given us a narrator whose take on the world is likely to be dependable.

You would be wrong. In terms of its perceptions, this novel is more than a pale view of hills; it is a fog-bound view of a black hole.

From just a couple of pages in, long before we learn about the mystery Banks must solve and which will dictate the story's immensely convoluted structure, sucking every narrative detail into it, there are hints that Banks himself is a bit mysterious -- a polite, Holmesian way of saying weird.

There is, first, his costive, over-precise way of expressing himself: "It was on one such leisurely walk that I encountered quite by chance an old schoolfriend, James Osbourn, and discovering him to be a neighbor, suggested he call on me when he was next passing."

This is admittedly the 1930s, and Banks is, as he announces in the very first sentence, a Cambridge graduate, but even so, the Victorian stiffness and stuffiness of his phrasing is striking.

The impression is confirmed -- and another hint dropped of something askew about our narrator -- when Osbourn, who doesn't talk like that at all, does drop by and ends up reminding Banks, "My goodness, you were such an odd bird at school." Banks is annoyed, and we are sympathetic, especially when we learn that he was an orphan, sent to boarding-school in his native England after losing his parents in Shanghai before World War I. Perhaps Osbourn was just a typical public-school oaf, misunderstanding a sensitive, twice-exiled little boy whose circumstances would have made him an outsider anywhere.

Perhaps. But now that little exile is grown-up and, despite having made himself into the very model of a modern society Englishman and celebrity, he is still forever running into people whose view of him is at odds with his own. Even odder is the fact that he reports all these encounters: "My voice sounded conspicuously childlike," he says of one occasion. "A little lost, eh?" inquires a sympathetic fellow partygoer. Late in the story, back in Shanghai by now, he quarrels with another old school friend for remembering him as "a miserable loner."

Capping everything is the growing sense that there is less to Banks' great-detective persona than meets the eye. He generally has some country-house "case" in hand -- "the Roger Parker murder" or "a case in Norfolk" -- but we are never given details, which is intriguing, given that he is a man myopically obsessed with details. There is one scene, though, in which Banks, describing his "modus operandi," inadvertently captures the feel of the whole claustrophobic story:

"I had found the walled garden -- containing the pond where Charles Emery's body had been discovered -- in the lower grounds of the house. Four stone steps had brought me down into a rectangular space so perversely sheltered from the sun that even on that bright morning everything around me was in shadow. The walls themselves were covered in ivy, but somehow one could not avoid the impression of having stepped into a roofless prison cell.

". . . I would suppose I had been examining this area for about twenty minutes -- I was on my front, scrutinizing with my magnifying glass one of the slabs that projected over the water -- when I became conscious of someone observing me."

Everything in this passage suggests the novel's larger themes: a mystery, an absent body, intimations of evil, a physical and psychological descent into a walled, dark enclosure, and above all, at the center of it, that intent, absurd figure studying the darkness with a magnifying glass. The magnifying glass is a recurring image, but here its significance is most sharply in focus: What is Banks but an emotionally arrested, play-acting detective who is a few props short in the costume department? And yet he is also our narrator, the man who is going to show us the big picture through his magnifying glass.

The remarkable thing is, he does. Pieced together solely out of Banks' fractured, if fecund, memories is a backdrop of looming menace that is infinitely larger and more real than his overheated consciousness. So real, indeed, and so menacing, that it turns our skepticism on its head: What if Banks' strange behavior is really the only sane response to the insanity that has shaped his world?

Patience is required to follow the unfolding plot as it switches back and forth between the present and Banks' fitfully remembered past, but it gradually emerges that an unresolved tragedy lies at the heart of his adult insecurity. His idyllic Shanghai childhood -- a world of sunshine and role-playing games with his Japanese next-door neighbor, Akira -- had been shattered by the sudden disappearance of his parents, first his father, who had been heavily involved in the British opium trade, and then his beautiful mother, who had fiercely opposed it. An affectionate but sinister uncle played a part in the drama, as did a vaguely recalled Chinese warlord. The loss of his parents, it is made clear, is what triggered Banks' sense of lurking evil and his compulsion to solve murders -- including, one day, what he presumes was theirs.

Years later, with war clouds massing over Europe and Japan already at war with China, Banks finally returns to Shanghai on this entirely private mission. The timing could not be more inappropriate, and yet he clings to his goal with the tenacity of the mad. As shells rain down on Shanghai, his inner and outer worlds start to crack in unison, the disintegration of the city mirroring his increasing mental agitation.

In one extraordinary extended scene, he and Akira, now a soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army (or does he just think it's Akira?), stumble through the bombed-out ruins in search of the house where Banks has been told his mother may still be a prisoner. It seems an insane quest, but where does sanity end and insanity begin in such a setting? The claustrophobic wreckage of Shanghai, all dank holes and tunnels, becomes the equivalent of that "walled garden" in faraway England where Banks had once before glimpsed the heart of darkness. The difference is that here a solid, historical reality lends credence to what had then seemed merely theatrical, even comic.

The turnaround is disturbing. Doubts fly all over again: Is this climactic scene just a supreme Banksian hallucination or have we misjudged him from the start? The denouement, which sees him vanquishing some of his demons and emerging into a kind of calm after the storm, does not tell us one way or the other. But one thing is clear: As a study of the relativity of human perception, the sheer subjectivity of reality, this maddening, mesmerizing novel is as good as anything Ishiguro has ever done.

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