Mmegi Blogs :: Lessons from Ishiguro, Nobel Laureate
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Thursday 22 February 2018, 23:12 pm.
Lessons from Ishiguro, Nobel Laureate

One of the books I read over the holiday was When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro.
By Lauri Kubuitsile Fri 19 Jan 2018, 17:45 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Lessons from Ishiguro, Nobel Laureate

I love Ishiguro so I was delighted when a friend loaned me this book. My favourite novel of his is Never Let Me Go, a dystopian novel about a group of children who grow up in a boarding school and who discover the nightmarish truth of the situation in drip by frightening drip. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize the same year. His novel about the butler Stevens, Remains of the Day also very good, won the Man Booker Prize in 1989.

Ishiguro is British but was born in Nagasaki Japan although he left there when he was five-years-old. 

He sometimes mentions that growing up in a Japanese home on the UK gave him a certain distance or perspective that makes him a better writer. He won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature with the committee noting that he is a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”.

When We Were Orphans is set up almost like a detective novel. Christopher Banks grew up in the expatriate Shanghai International Settlement in China in the early 1900s. His father worked for a large British company that dealt in opium. His mother worked on campaigns to make opium illegal and to assist the Chinese addicts. This caused much tension between the couple.

When Christopher is 10, his father suddenly disappears on his way to work. A few weeks later, his mother disappears too and he is carted off to Britain to live with an aunt. The mystery of what happened to his parents is never solved and it haunts him. As an adult, he becomes a famous London detective solving many high-profile crimes. He decides to return to Shanghai in 1937 to solve the mystery around his parents.

Like nearly all of Ishiguro’s novels, this book is written in first person. This gives the reader a closeness with the main character that allows the most empathy. It also lets the reader feel the main character’s failings more personally as well. For Christopher Banks is not perfect, like all of Ishiguro’s protagonists. His interactions with Sarah Hemmings, a volatile,


unstable woman who Christopher is immediately attracted to, reveals some of his worst flaws. But we are all flawed so Christopher is forgiven.

His return to Shanghai is in the middle of the Second Sino-Japanese War and at the very beginnings of the WWII. There is an evil stalking the world, and the impression is given that its headquarter is Shanghai and that Christopher may be the only one to stop it before it dismantles the world. Odd people insinuate to him that he must find his parents, which seems very unlikely after so much time, so as to pre-empt the success of this evil thing, another impossible task. From those first words, everything seems uncertain, and as a reader you begin to wonder if your narrator can be relied on. An odd sort of dreamlike state takes over in Shanghai, where Christopher must navigate war zones set in the neighbourhoods of his childhood. He visits his boyhood home and inexplicably the people who own it now seem happy to hand it back to him. He thinks he sees a childhood friend he desperately wants to speak to, but then lets him pass by without a word. Odd happenings continue, adding to the confusion over what is real and what is not.

When We Were Orphans is not a predictable sort of genre detective novel. It is a look into a man, burdened from boyhood with loss and this unsolved mystery, determined to get to its final end. He does, but with little relief, and then the sadness of a life wasted on self-imposed responsibility at the expense of freedom to live his own life comes crashing in. Yes, we learn the answers to the questions, but at what cost to our Christopher Banks.

In many ways I think it’s one of Ishiguro’s most accomplished novels. For writers, the seamless plotting, flowing from the present to the past and back again, the manipulation of facts and questions in the reader’s mind by the writer to push the narrative ahead with constant tension is masterful and yet all unseen. We could all learn quite a bit from this novel.


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