“All I know is that I’ve wasted all these years looking for something, a sort of trophy I’d get only if I really, really did enough to deserve it. But I don’t want it anymore, I want something else now, something warm and sheltering, something I can turn to, regardless of what I do, regardless of who I become. Something that will just be there, always, like tomorrow’s sky. That’s what I want now, and I think it’s what you should want too. But it will be too late soon. We’ll become too set to change. If we don’t take our chance now, another may never come for either of us.”
It is precisely after having read this quote that I waited for the whole of 2018 to get my hands on this novel. After months of stalking the book on amazon and other websites, I managed to procure it and finally read it. In all honestly, the wait has not gone in vain, my patience bore the fruits I expected from Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans.
Ishiguro, through his aforesaid novel brings into focus the period of Second World War with the help of a famous English detective Christopher Banks who is the narrator of the story. The period that Ishiguro deals has been dealt by him in his other novels like An Artist of the Floating, the story of Masuji Ono who put his work in the service of the imperialist movement that led Japan into the Second World War. However, in When We Were Orphans he uses an Englishman to narrate the war from the perspective of the West. Banks is a celebrated detective in the London society; however, one case that he is intent upon solving and that has remained unsolved since his life in London began was the disappearance of his parents when he was a child living in Shanghai.
Before I delve into what I felt about the book, I would like to write something about the voice of the narrator in Ishiguro’s novels. I have read four books by Ishiguro now, and in three out of the four books male narrators have been used. All the three male narrators have been from different social setting but they have been present against the background of the Great Wars, be it the butler from The Remains of the Day, or the artist from An Artist of the Floating World, or the detective from When We Were Orphans; the three voices have had the same detached tone and listening to their stories have always made me judge them as highly complex and ambiguous. I feel that’s exactly what Ishiguro wished to achieve while he drew up the characters, and I must say he achieved it pretty well because I could sympathise with these narrators and understand their sufferings but after a point they become difficult to understand and it becomes somewhat impossible to judge them on moral grounds. The narrator in When We Were Orphans was a man of “high London society”; he has this air of arrogance and feeling of superiority around him, as we get to see how he dealt with Sarah Hemmings’ rejection when he approached her for the first time or the time he irritatingly refused to be considered as a ‘miserable loner’ in his school days by one of his classmates. Throughout the narration one gets to have a sense of how highly the narrator thought of himself and it was in a sense a representation of the English spirit at that time. The novel is a satire on the English colonial expansion; it is a story that unmasked the reality of the so-called civilised West, the narrator, like his mother, were voices in the story to denounce the imperialist nature of England that was marring the East. By referring closely to the Opium trade in China, the author shows how the English were perpetrating it for their colonialist goals and the price the East had to pay for the high society of the West, particularly the Whites. The novel is a satire on war itself, the effects a war can have by tearing families apart, and the death. Ishiguro puts his narrator right into the war field to experience war from his own eyes by making him look at people writhe in pain, scream and howl for life and taste war in every way possible. The novel is a tale of memory, intrigue and the need to return, the need to belong which war and the modern society has taken away from man.