When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans

Infobox Book |
name = When We Were Orphans
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption =
author = Kazuo Ishiguro
cover_artist =
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series =
genre = Crime novel
publisher = Faber and Faber
release_date = 2000
media_type = Print (Paperback)
pages = 368 pp (paperback edition)
isbn = ISBN 0-571-20562-3 (paperback edition)
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"When We Were Orphans" is a novel by the British-Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro, published 2000 (ISBN 0-375-72440-0).

Plot summary

The novel is about a British man named Christopher Banks who used to live in the Shanghai of colonial China in the early 1900s, but when his father, an opium businessman, and his mother disappear within an interval of a few weeks, Christopher is sent away to live with his aunt in Britain. Christopher vows to become a detective in order to solve the case of his parents' disappearance, and he achieves this goal through ruthless determination. His fame as a private investigator soon spreads, and in the late 1930s he returns to China to solve the most important case of his life. The impression is given that if he solves this case, a world catastrophe will be averted but it is not apparent how. As Christopher pursues his investigation, the boundaries between fact and fantasy begin to evaporate.

At this time in China, there are battles between the Japanese and Chinese, and Christopher gets caught up in them. Through an old detective from his childhood times, he is able to locate the house at which his parents may have been held. However, this event was a few decades earlier but it seems that Christopher still believes adamantly that they are still there. On his way, he enters a war-torn police station belonging to the Chinese. After convincing them of his neutrality, he is able to persuade the commander to direct him to the house of his kidnapped parents. They set off but after a while, the commander does not take Christopher further so he goes alone. Throughout all this, he appears to disregard the commander's words that what he is doing is dangerous, and even appears to be rude to him. He meets an injured Japanese soldier who he believes is his childhood friend Akira. They enter the house only to find out that his parents are not there. Japanese soldiers enter and take them away.

He later learns from his uncle that his mother insulted a Chinese warlord Wang Ku, who captured her to be his slave ("concubine"). Uncle Philip (who is not his real uncle, but a former lodger at their residence in Shanghai) was the one who deceived them and made sure Christopher was not present when this kidnap took place. He offers Christopher a gun to kill him but Christopher refuses. He learns that his father is certainly dead but is unsure about his mother. Uncle Philip reveals to him the ghastly truth about the source of his living expenses and tuition fees during Christopher's early years in England. Christopher is told that he had been living off his mother, who only agreed to surrender herself to Wang Ku after he had promised to lend financial support to her son. Several years later, Christopher is reunited with his mother but she does not recognize him. He uses his childhood name 'Puffin' and his mother seems to recognize it. He asks her to forgive him, but she is confused as to why she should. Christopher takes this as confirmation that she has always loved him.

Literary significance & criticism

In "When We Were Orphans" Kazuo Ishiguro uses the conventions of crime fiction to create a moving portrait of a troubled mind, and of a man who cannot escape the long shadows cast by childhood trauma. Sherlock Holmes needed only fragments - a muddy shoe, cigarette ash on a sleeve - to make his deductions, but all Christopher has are fading recollections of long-ago events, and for him the truth is much harder to grasp.

The narrative is in the first person by Christopher Banks. Ishiguro conjures time and place with precise detail, evoking both the exotic atmosphere of pre-war Shanghai, festering with the contrast between the arrogant residents of the International Settlement and the Chinese living in squalid slums and supplied with opium by foreign merchants, and class-conscious England, in which one's "connections" depend on family lineage. The novel is yet another book after "The Remains Of The Day" and "The Artist Of The Floating World" where Ishiguro skillfully weaves personal joys, sorrows, hopes, anger and turmoil into historical backdrops.

It is possible that Christopher deludes himself about many things, such as his conviction that when he "roots out evil," he is "cleansing the world of wickedness." This inclination toward grandiosity is a direct result of Christopher's sense of powerlessness as an orphan. While he is unaware of the connection, he is drawn to mercurial Sarah Hemmings, also orphaned in childhood. In the end, Christopher understands that his vision of reality was distorted, and that his lifelong mission, "chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents," was the inescapable fate of one caught in the toils of historical turbulence. Fact|date=February 2007

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