History happens elsewhere

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber, £16.99)
Click to follow

Kazuo Ishiguro's subject is, and always has been, memory. The memories of Ishiguro's protagonists are not suffering from a blur of gradually fading recall, they are struggling to come to terms with an event - often a war - which has inverted their moral universe. Ishiguro almost always divides his novels into sections and uses dates at the start of each section. However, despite this superficial fixing of time in his work, the narrative frequently spins wildly through different eras. The dates Ishiguro likes to fix are merely the dates of recall. He constantly tells us that the past is alive in the present. His narrators, all of whom have suffered a deep psychological rupture in their lives, are often fighting a long-standing battle to relate their past to a present with which it does not seem to fit.

Though the Sino-Japanese war of the late Thirties plays a key role in When We Were Orphans, the main fracture in the life of this novel's protagonist, Christopher Banks, is the disappearance of his parents. Narrated exclusively from Christopher's adulthood, the novel circles back repeatedly to a happy childhood in the affluent colonial settlement of Shanghai, among a decadent European set prospering on the Chinese opium trade. Though Christopher's memories are incomplete, we are related the traumatic events of a childhood turned upside down by the death of his father, almost immediately followed by the disappearance of his mother, after which the boy is sent to Britain as an orphan.

In a narrative technique previously employed by this author, Christopher's memories of these events are interspersed with a journey to solve the unexplained elements of the narrator's own past. Having turned himself into a successful detective, Christopher returns to Shanghai as an adult, in search of his lost parents. He knows that his father was implicated in the opium trade, while his mother was active in the fight for its abolition, and from these clues he begins to draw himself into Shanghai's underworld, seeking the truth about his parents' disappearance.

In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro pulls off the most important trick of first-person narrative, namely to tell us a story against the grain of his narrator. When we are told, for example, that as a boy, "I rapidly absorbed the other gestures, turns of phrase and exclamations popular among my peers, as well as grasping the deeper mores and etiquettes prevailing in my new surroundings", we receive the opposite message. This is clearly a boy who failed to fit in. Christopher Banks's veneer of self-confidence is paper- thin. Though Christopher never allows it to crack, Ishiguro's hand lies confidently behind the text, showing us far more than our narrator thinks he has shown.

For all the bombs 'n' shagging antics of Sebastian Faulks, Ishiguro is probably the most interesting writer about war working at present. Even when he seems to be writing about something else, Ishiguro's writing is infused with a profound sense of the effect that great historical events have on people's lives. This, not blood and guts and perfectly researched period underwear details, is the real story of the cataclysmic century just closed.

Where so many historical novels reveal to us the protagonists of history, Ishiguro has repeatedly brought alive a far more enriching and mature sense of the past, in which the adventures and great events are happening elsewhere. In revealing to us the repercussions of history, instead of narrating history itself, Ishiguro has succeeded in exposing the thinness of the majority of historical fiction. He reminds us that it is the job of historians to tell us what happened, the job of novelists to tell us how these events impacted on ordinary lives.

When We Were Orphans, like The Remains of the Day, is particularly interesting in this regard, since both novels tell of a man who thinks he has touched on the centre of important events, only to discover that the real sources of power lay elsewhere. In both these works, Ishiguro is going so far as to mock the belief that one individual can affect the course of history.

Though When We Were Orphans comes closer to the narrative of adventure than anything he has written before, an underlying fatalism remains firmly in place. Again, Ishiguro is telling us the opposite of Hollywood's endlessly refashioned über-narrative. While every movie screen shouts at us that we can change our world, Ishiguro, quietly and profoundly, shows that we don't shape events; events shape us.

Comments