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When We Were Orphans

by

When We Were Orphans Cover

 

 

Author Q & A

A Conversation with

Kazuo Ishiguro

about his new novel

When We Were Orphans

Q: Is it true to say that When We Were Orphans is, in part, an homage to the 'Golden Age' of English detective fiction that took place in the '20s and '30s-- the work of writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers?

A: Maybe that's putting it too strongly, to call the novel an homage, because it's not really a conventional detective story. But yes, there's a relationship. These mystery authors--Christie, Sayers, a whole host of others--became enormously popular in England just after the Great War. Today, they're still read and enjoyed, but their work is, by and large, derided as being two-dimensional, class-ridden, and most importantly--and in contrast to the American crime tradition--much too genteel. I'm sure you know the type of thing. The stories often take place in some idealized English village of the time, where everyone knows his or her place, and life would be idyllic but for one thing: there's a murderer on the loose. So everything, just for the moment, has fallen into disarray. But the vision of evil isn't very scary. The murders all take place in some crossword puzzle-like dimension. And all it takes is for one remarkable figure, the Great Detective, to arrive on the scene, go click, unmask the murderer, and the order and tranquility is restored. At the close of these books, there's no sense of post-murder trauma, even when someone's gone through four or five victims in a tiny country village. Once the killer's unmasked, then everything in the garden's rosy again. The Great Detective is thanked and goes on his way. Of course, looked at one way, this is escapism of the shoddiest kind.

Q: So what is it that fascinated you about this tradition?

A: Well, when you look at it in its proper historical context, you can see it's a genre filled with poignant longings. Because what you have to remember is that this genre flourished right after the utter trauma of the Great War. Europe had just experienced modern warfare for the first time. A whole generation of young men had died in hitherto undreamed-of conditions, and social values had been turned upside down. The point is, those detective stories were devoured by a generation who know only too well the real nature of suffering and mayhem in the modern world. They knew full well that evil wasn't about vicars poisoning widows for their inheritance. They'd seen the face of modern evil--rampant nationalisms, blood-lust, racism, dehumanized technological mass killing, chaos no-one could control. The 'Golden Age' detective novels, if you look at them a certain way, are filled with a pining for a world of order and justice that people had once believed in, but which they now know full well is unattainable. There's a forlorn wish that even now, all it needs is this superhuman figure, this detective, to come and put the world right again. It's escapism, but escapism of a particularly poignant kind.

Q: Christopher Banks, your detective hero, has to some extent stepped out of this genre, but the world of When We Were Orphan is quite a long way from that of these genteel mysteries, isn't it?

A: I hope so. What I began with was the notion of taking one of these Golden Age detectives and setting him down, completely out of his depth, in the turmoil of the twentieth century, as the world hurtles form one horror to the next. I had this rather comic idea of a detective going about high society London with his Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass, who by the end of the story is examining dismembered corpses in a war-zone, with the same magnifying glass, desperately wondering 'who-dunnit.'

Q: The novel starts in high society London in the 30s, but a lot of it also takes place in China, in Shanghai during the first half of the twentieth century. What drew you to the place?

A: I'd had it in the back of my mind for some years to set a story in what's referred to as 'Old Shanghai.' My father, who is Japanese, was born there in 1920, and lived there with his parents until the outbreak of W.W. II. His father--my grandfather--had been charged with setting up Toyota in China, and that's why they were there. Toyota in those days wasn't a car company, but a textiles firm. In our family albums, there are photos of the original Mr. Toyota visiting the house. Shanghai in those days was a glitzy, glamorous, wild place. Gambling, opium, luxuriously decadent night-clubs. The center of it, what was called the International Settlement, where my novel takes place, was where British, American, European and Japanese industrialists were vying for dominance as they built skyscrapers and made vast fortunes.

Meanwhile, the Chinese themselves were locked in a bitter underground war between the Nationalists and the Communists. There were also Russian aristocrats who'd fled the Revolution living in ghettos, and later, in the thirties, Jews escaping Europe settled there. It was pretty lawless, but the elite lived in some splendor, while others, including most of the native Chinese, live in awful poverty. You could say it was a kind of prototype for many modern cosmopolitan cities we have today. I used to look at these family albums, with photos of my grandfather in a white suit, in offices with ceiling fans, or posing in front of cars with big running boards, and it all looked to me like an old movie or something. And yet this was the same grandfather I lived with in quiet provincial Japan in my childhood. And it was odd to think that my father, who's lived the last forty years in the leafy Home Counties of England, actually grew up there. I think I'd been wanting to set a novel in that Shanghai for some time. Of course, it all vanished with the war, and then the Communist Revolution.

Q: Christopher Banks sets out to solve the great mystery of his past: the event that shaped his childhood in Shanghai. Childhood and, more specifically, memory are crucial themes here. Are they important to you as a writer?

A: I've never written anything that didn't, in some important way, concern childhood and memory. This book contains an extended section containing the narrator's memories of an innocent, happy childhood in Shanghai before events suddenly took it all away from him. I've always been interested in memory, because it's the filter through which we read our past. It's always tinted--with self-deception, guilt, pride, nostalgia, whatever. I find memory endlessly fascinating, not so much from a neurological or philosophical viewpoint, but as this tool by which people tell themselves things about the lives they've led and about who they've become.

Nostalgia, incidentally, is an emotion I'm very interested in these days. This book's a lot about nostalgia. I think nostalgia is a much-maligned emotion, and I'd like to speak up on its behalf. Of course, it can be a vehicle for a lot of shoddy, reactionary baggage. But in its purest forms, I think nostalgia is to the emotions what idealism is to the intellect. It's a way we have of longing for a better world. We remember a time--often from our distant childhood--when we believed the world to be much kinder place than it proved to be when we grew up. I think nostalgia is a profound emotion that's all too often dismissed unfairly.

Q: Like the butler, Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, Christopher Banks is a man unable to see the larger world picture in his pursuit of order in the rather insular universe he knows. Are you drawn to that part of us that's somewhat deluded by our own unique experience?

A: Well, actually, I think most of us live in our small worlds. It's natural. We do our jobs, we bring up our children, we try and get by the best we can. It's very hard to get proper perspective in our lives. It's very difficult to rise above the immediate urgencies that weigh each of us down and take a look at how things are up there, above the roof line. Yes, my characters are deluded, or they can't see where their small world fits into the large world, but that's because I feel that for most of us that's our fate. The small world of our unique experience is where most of us live.

Q: Early in your adult life you were planning to be (and were) a singer-songwriter. Was the switch to writing an easy one for you and do you find the work at all similar?

A: As you say, from the age of sixteen and perhaps till as late as twenty-four, my ambition was to be a songwriter. It was the '70s, so yes, the natural thing seemed to be a singer-songwriter. This was a drawback, since my singing is, well, let's say it's not a strong point! But I play guitar and piano, and I wrote over a hundred songs, made demo tapes and did the whole thing of going to see A&R men at the various recording companies. My heroes were people like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson. I also liked songwriters from an earlier era like Gershwin, Cole Porter, Carlos Jobim. I've always loved the early songs of Jimmy Webb. 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' was a kind of ideal for me: economy of narrative, the bitter-sweet blend, the evocation of landscape, it's all there. Anyway, I had a few years of unblemished failure in terms of getting a career going. But looking back, I did learn a lot from my songwriting, and when I started to write fiction, when I was twenty-four, I think I was able to start at a more advanced point than I would have otherwise. When I sometimes read the work of writing students, or writers who are just starting out, I often recognize things they're going through in fiction that I went through in my music. For example, I think I got through my intense adolescent autobiographical phase in my songwriting. (You wouldn't want to hear those songs.) Similarly, that phase writers often go through, a kind of purple prose phase, when you're exhilarated at gaining for the first time anything like technical prowess: I went through that in my songs too. I had a lot of songs with strange stream-of-consciousness lyrics going over augmented and diminished chords thrashing around to some Latin beat. By the time I came to write short stories, I'd managed to pare things right down. I'd begun to distinguish between what was showing off and what was authentic artistic expression. Though mind you, that's still a distinction I find hard to draw.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As it happens, I'm thinking about a novel about a writer of American popular songs, between the end of W.W. II and the start of rock-and-roll. Someone of European ancestry, trained in classical European music in his childhood in Vienna or Strasbourg or someplace like that, who comes to America as a penniless refugee, learns this jazz and show music, becomes American. But I've got two other possible novels, and I haven't decided which to get to work on next. After the turn of the year, I'm going to stop traveling and promoting my last book and really get down to working on my next one.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780375412653
Publisher:
A.A. Knopf
Subject:
Literary
Author:
Ishiguro, Kazuo
Author:
Kazuo Ishiguro
Subject:
Death
Subject:
Private investigators
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Fiction-Literary
Subject:
Fiction : Literary
Subject:
Fiction : General
Subject:
British
Subject:
Shanghai
Subject:
Parents
Subject:
Missing persons
Subject:
Detective and mystery stories
Subject:
Psychological fiction
Subject:
Audio Books-Literature
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
main_subject
Subject:
all_subjects
Edition Description:
American
Publication Date:
2000
Binding:
ELECTRONIC
Language:
English
Pages:
335

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Mystery » A to Z

When We Were Orphans
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Product details 335 pages Random House Incorporated - English 9780375412653 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , Chapter One

It was the summer of 1923, the summer I came down from Cambridge, when despite my aunt's wishes that I return to Shropshire, I decided my future lay in the capital and took up a small flat at Number 14b Bedford Gardens in Kensington. I remember it now as the most wonderful of summers. After years of being surrounded by fellows, both at school and at Cambridge, I took great pleasure in my own company. I enjoyed the London parks, the quiet of the Reading Room at the British Museum; I indulged entire afternoons strolling the streets of Kensington, outlining to myself plans for my future, pausing once in a while to admire how here in England, even in the midst of such a great city, creepers and ivy are to be found clinging to the fronts of fine houses.

It was on one such leisurely walk that I encountered quite by chance an old schoolfriend, James Osbourne, and discovering him to be a neighbour, suggested he call on me when he was next passing. Although at that point I had yet to receive a single visitor in my rooms, I issued my invitation with confidence, having chosen the premises with some care. The rent was not high, but my landlady had furnished the place in a tasteful manner that evoked an unhurried Victorian past; the drawing room, which received plenty of sun throughout the first half of the day, contained an ageing sofa as well as two snug armchairs, an antique sideboard and an oak bookcase filled with crumbling encyclopaedias — all of which I was convinced would win the approval of any visitor. Moreover, almost immediately upon taking the rooms, I had walked over to Knightsbridge and acquired there a Queen Anne tea service, several packets of fine teas, and a large tin of biscuits. So when Osbourne did happen along one morning a few days later, I was able to serve out the refreshments with an assurance that never once permitted him to suppose he was my first guest.

For the first fifteen minutes or so, Osbourne moved restlessly around my drawing room, complimenting me on the premises, examining this and that, looking regularly out of the windows to exclaim at whatever was going on below. Eventually he flopped down into the sofa, and we were able to exchange news — our own and that of old schoolfriends. I remember we spent a little time discussing the activities of the workers' unions, before embarking on a long and enjoyable debate on German philosophy, which enabled us to display to one another the intellectual prowess we each had gained at our respective universities. Then Osbourne rose and began his pacing again, pronouncing as he did so upon his various plans for the future.

"I've a mind to go into publishing, you know. Newspapers, magazines, that sort of thing. In fact, I fancy writing a column myself. About politics, social issues. That is, as I say, if I decide not to go into politics myself. I say, Banks, do you really have no idea what you want to do? Look, it's all out there for us" — he indicated the window — "Surely you have some plans."

"I suppose so," I said, smiling. "I have one or two things in mind. I'll let you know in good time."

"What have you got up your sleeve? Come on, out with it I'll get it out of you yet "

But I revealed nothing to him, and before long got him arguing again about philosophy or poetry or some such thing. Then around noon, Osbourne suddenly remembered a

"Synopsis" by , The maze of human memory--the ways in which we accommodate and alter it, deceive and deliver ourselves with it--is territory that Kazuo Ishiguro has made his own. In his previous novels, he has explored this inner world and its manifestations in the lives of his characters with rare inventiveness and subtlety, shrewd humor and insight. In When We Were Orphans, his first novel in five years, he returns to this terrain in a brilliantly realized story that illuminates the power of one's past to determine the present.
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