Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The lens of roman noir: Ishiguro’s ‘When we were Orphans’

Kazuo Ishiguro is famed chiefly as winner of the Booker Prize for his novel, The Remains of the Day, the virtues of which are beyond dispute, but will not be discussed here. Instead I want to concentrate on his novel of 2000 (shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize), When We Were Orphans – a masterpiece of the art of roman noir. I hope that a film director with a penchant for film noir notices the unmistakable noir features of this novel sooner rather than later; it lends itself to a remarkable degree to noir’s trademark mode of visualisation that stresses the intertwinement of light and dark, signifying the impossibility of separating good and evil conclusively in individuals and in society as a whole, contrary to what mainstream Hollywood movies routinely suggest.

The novel’s noir structure is remarkably close to that of film noir, which is not the case with all roman noir novels, but which is conspicuously the case with When We Were Orphans. There are an “alienated detective” who maintains a rather jaundiced view of the world, no less than three femmes fatales, several characters with dubious morals, and the indispensable feature of noir, to wit corruption and a pervasive sense of evil, which one is initially led to believe applies exclusively to the criminals tracked down by our detective in England, and to those involved with the opium trade in Shanghai – including the company that Christopher’s father works for. Increasingly, however, one realizes that evil, although mostly kept on the periphery by Ishiguro, permeates society thoroughly, even to the degree that Christopher himself displays signs of moral weakness (when he fails to defend his childhood friend, Akira, against charges of being a war informant to the Chinese by his Japanese superiors).

The narrative enacts what Kant claimed in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone, that evil is rooted in human nature, and is strictly ineradicable, because the very thing that enables one to choose the good above evil, namely freedom of the will, ALSO enables one to choose evil at any time. Kant called this “radical (rooted) evil”, as opposed to “diabolical evil”, which rests on the assumption that one does not have freedom of will to choose good above evil – a possibility rejected by Kant, but accepted by many instances of noir fiction (for example Polanski’s The Ninth Gate).

When We Were Orphans – the unfolding events of which are narrated, in true noir fashion, by a celebrated British detective, Christopher Banks – is set alternately in London, England, and the Shanghai of the interwar years, when the latter city was the hub of the lucrative opium trade. Christopher is what literary theorists call “an unreliable narrator” who confesses to uncertainty and haziness concerning the memories he is drawing upon in his narration, which means that this is a novel that probes the notion of memory and repression, among other things. Most fundamentally, however, it explores the nature of evil and corruption in individual humans as well as in society, and leaves one with the uncomfortable feeling that evil is ineradicable, although, as a counterweight to this, love seems to be the only thing that endures to an equal extent.

As a young boy, Christopher and his Japanese friend, Akira, play their games alternately in the Banks’ house and backyard, and on the property belonging to Akira’s family, in the International Settlement in Shanghai. They witness the comings and goings of friends and acquaintances, mainly at the Banks’ residence, without grasping their significance, and indulge in imaginary detective investigations and dramatic rescues of people in distress, little knowing, at the time, that future events would strengthen Christopher’s resolve to devote himself to becoming a real detective. When first his father, and shortly afterwards his mother disappear, Christopher is sent to England to stay with an aunt, in whose care he completes his education, before embarking on a career as detective, eventually being hailed by London society as the greatest detective of the day.

In the meantime we have met Sarah Hemmings, a London socialite who clearly has her sights set on the “best” man available, but whose charms initially leave Christopher cold. Instead, having received an inheritance when his aunt died, he has become foster father to an orphaned girl named Jennifer. When the time comes for him to return to Shanghai, sufficiently prepared to unravel the still unsolved mystery of his parents’ disappearance years before, recently married Sarah and her diplomat husband also happen to be there, significantly – in the place widely regarded as the “heart of the beast”, and everyone seems to harbour a disproportionate expectation that Christopher’s successful venture would somehow stem the tide of evil that is likely to engulf the world, should he fail.

To cut a long story short (and not be a spoiler), despite his almost childlike, desire-induced belief that his parents are still held in a house in Shanghai, Christopher has to confront the unexpected, including that everything he believed to be the reasons for their disappearance is in fact false. The truth about them turns out to be far more painful, and is revealed to him by a man he used to know as Uncle Philip, an associate of his mothers in the organisation that campaigned against the opium trade, now unmasked as a communist informer for the Chinese nationalists. When Christopher finally tracks down his mother in a Catholic “home” in Hong Kong after WW II, she does not recognise him. She does, however, respond to his childhood nickname, Puffin, in a manner that leaves no doubt about her continued love for her son, for whose security she paid an unimaginably high price.

The manner in which Ishiguro weaves together narrative strands bearing on economics, politics, education, war, personal ambition and desire, comprises a veritable microcosm of human society, and leaves one in no doubt that he has succeeded in uncovering the paradoxical anatomy of the human condition. Human suffering as well as joy is here, together with nobility of intentions, subverted by greed and the lust for power. The lens of noir also reveals the ambivalence as well as the inscrutable nature of human personality. Duplicity is discovered in those from whom one least expects it. Strength of character is counterbalanced by unexpected weakness, and the failures of memory, together with the way that unconscious desire undermines conscious reasoning, unmask human beings as children of a far lesser god than the one they believe they see reflected in their own species.

Anyone interested in the theme of noir, may want to read my paper, The logic of noir and the question of radical evil, in Film and Philosophy, Vol. 8, January 2004, pp. 122-137.

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    • Maria

      Your analysis implies that the Shanghai of the novel, an amalgam of history and fictionalisation, is elevated to the level of a metaphor for human society. In this it resonates, perhaps intentionally on Ishiguro’s part, with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, where the latter turns out to be precisely that – representing all of human society, and not just a part of LA regarded as being the epitome of lawlessness. it is perhaps also significant that Chinatown usually appears, if not at the top of critics’ lists of the best films noir of all time, then usually among the first five. But I am in agreement with you about When we were Orphans: it is an exemplary roman noir. The “unreliable narrator” is therefore also a metaphor for human fallibility, in addition to being symptomatic of memory being selective, driven by desire, and always performing the “secondary revision” that Freud found in dreams, which is the product of the preconscious, or reason, that always smooths out what “really occurred”, whether this is in our dreams or in our past. Thanks for this, Bert – I can use it well in courses on art noir.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      There is continual talk of demons and evil spirits and analysis of evil in South Africa – all totally distorted by American Movies which show the demon possessed as evil.

      Actually evil over good is a cold blooded choice of the greedy, the arrogant and the selfish HUMAN Demon possession is something entirely different – and curable.

      The experts in this topic in the West are the Roman Catholic Priests and the Jungian Psychiatrists who work together. Demon possession is referred by psychiatrists to priests if analysed; mental illness is referred by priests to psychiatrists. BUT only the best experts can even identify the symptoms of either. If you are really interested in the topic of human evil, then read the book “People of the Lie: An Analysis of Human Evil” by the psychiatrist and spiritualist Scott M Peck. His analysis of the difference between evil, mental illness, and demon possession is brilliant and detailed.

      In Bantu Africa the sangomas are both priest and psychiatrist – BUT Blacks, like Whites, do NOT dabble in these things themselves but call on experts to advise.

      The problem is that both Whites and Black have worlds filled with fake and badly qualified priests, and psychiatrists and sangomas – not to even mention the appalling advisors to the Hollywood film makers.

    • Richard

      I have been a fan of Ishiguro for a long time, and recommend his “An Artist of the Floating World”, and his post-modern “The Unconsoled”. I find Ishiguro’s contrasting of the internal world of the intellect, and the sudden intrusion of outer physicality, very powerful. This is representative to me of the journey of a life (character narrative, perhaps) intersecting witih forces that would change its path. These can occur suddenly, and remind one of how tentative a life’s course is, especially one that attempts to remain “true” to its “purpose” (inexactitudes in quotes). Might it be that this is a metaphor for the good/evil debate? Is evil merely such because it occurs within a morally “good” framework, and so is the dark that offsets the light? In that case, and to risk invoking Godwin’s Law, could one even say that somebody like Adolf Hitler was “evil” in that there was no “unevil” to offset it? In a universe of pure anti-matter, what is matter, after all? As you say, it is the supposed ability to choose good or evil that makes them so. Without that choice, they are neither, but are simply states that exist.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      For interest’s sake, Scott M Peck worked in prisons, in mental hospitals, and in churches. He writes in “People of the Lie” that he has never met a truly evil person in prison, but has met a few in churches – because the evil seek positions of power and dominance. He probably would have written the same about mosques, had he had any experience of them.

      Which ties in with Plato’s warning in “The Republic” that “The People” should never grant power to those who want it, because they were the wrong personality type. Like African Sangomas the Greek philosophers were also psychologists. In my opinion, the separation of psychology and philosophy in the West has sterilised both disciplines.

    • Sophia

      What would we do without these great novels? Isn’t it wonderful to encounter a narrative that doesn’t try climb outside of the world and see it as a whole, nor seek to (deliberately) elaborate a metaphysical system, nor cut a puzzle piece for some pre-baked ideology, and yet that seems to ‘say so much about so much about who we are’. I had that experience in reading Umberto Eco’s recent novel, ‘The Prague Cemetery’ (2011), wherein a single fictitious character (Simone Simonini) knots together hundreds of historical loose ends (people and events) and instead of clarifying these fragments, opens a myriad of new avenues and tosses us into the full force of history’s awesome and relentless current.
      Your reference to Kant reminds me of his subtle contrast of the beautiful and the sublime; whereby he describes the sublime as large, long and elevated and the beautiful as small, neat and tidy. The beautiful is of the sun & the daytime, whereas the sublime is of the moon and the nocturnal. It seems to me that these wondrous artefacts we include under the definition of great & memorable literature encompass and elicit both the sublime and the beautiful. They also include the evil, debased and the ugly, for taken together these (and other characteristics and possibilities) are part of “the paradoxical anatomy of the human condition”. A condition without formula, wherein every abstraction misses the radical contingency that sometimes makes duplicity, corruption & even evil…

    • Sophia

      They also include the evil, debased and the ugly, for taken together these (and other characteristics and possibilities) are part of “the paradoxical anatomy of the human condition”. A condition without formula, wherein every abstraction misses the radical contingency that sometimes makes duplicity, corruption & even evil necessary

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The CHOICE of Evil over Good is by greedy, selfish, arrogant HUMANS exercising God Given Free Will.

      Neither Mental Illness, nor Demon Possession are CHOSEN by the victims – and are curable, but only by properly trained and experienced experts, not by fakesters.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      In all Scott M Peck’s case studies of the people he calls evil, they all claim to be “disadvantaged” and therefore “entitled” to special consideration.He sees no significance in this – but living in Africa as I do where “disadvantaged” and “entitlement” is actively encouraged, I do.

      For example a teenage boy committed a crime and was ordered by the American Judge for psychiatric evaluation, so the parents were forced to consult. The boy’s brother had committed suicide, and the parents had given the boy the same gun his brother killed himself with as a birthday present. When asked why the answer was “we are only ordinary middle class, not educated like you doctors, so we don’t know these things”.

    • Desmond

      Thanks Bert — interesting analysis. I am a huge fan of Ishiguro (his Never Let Me Go is one of the best books I have ever read) and I own When We Were Orphans; yet it is the one I haven;t read. Will do now!

    • Bert

      Thanks again, Maria – I could not have said it better, but given the space, I would pursue the topic further along those lines.
      Richard, I would tend to agree with you, and yet, would it not be hubris on our part to suppose, as we tend to, that evil enters the world through human binary thinking and moral awareness? Isn’t there a cosmic ‘good and evil’, as Anaximander implied in his obscurish fragments, of which the human variety is just that – a ‘variety’? Or was he anthropomorphizing? When you study the panels of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, you get the same impression – even in the left hand panel, representing Paradise, there are already signs of ‘evil’, which increase as you move to the right, across the panel representing earth, and eventually the ‘musical’ hell. But it remains an interesting, and puzzling, debate. I can recommend Joan Copjec’s (edited) book, Radical Evil, here.
      Sophia, thank you for that reference – I haven’t read the recent Eco novel. But then, it is unsurprising that he ties all these things together without relinquishing any of the complexity. He did that in Foucault’s Pendulum, too, mind-bogglingly. I remember saying, at the time of reading it, that it is incomprehensible that one person can know so much. Antonia Byatt is his female counterpart.
      Desmond – I agree with you on Never Leave Me. It is one of the subtlest literary explorations of ‘evil’ (again!) that I know of; has secured his place in science…

    • Bert

      continued/ …in science fiction. It should have won the Booker Prize, too.

    • Bert

      Desmond – I meant to say: Never Let Me Go…!

    • Garg Unzola

      Fantastic, I really enjoyed this post.

    • Enough Said

      I am a great fan of Bert’s, but I do think intellectuals like him and those he writes about are too complicated (narrow-minded) to be relevant to society. Bert is part of a limited Western intellectual mind-set. It will always fail because it does not tap into full human mental potential. According to psychologists we use between one and 10% of our mental potential. Einstein probably used 10%, me, I use about one percent, and I am sure Bert uses at least 7%. However we are never going to solve anything if over 90% of our mental potential remains dormant. Modern Western philosophy is nothing more than mental masturbation.

    • Bert

      Enough Said, I realize how irrelevant a philosophical take on things – anything – is for the vast majority of people, which is why I try to write on things that are actually relevant, even if people may not think so. Ishiguro’s novels are hugely relevant – all great novels are – and they are more accessible to people than philosophical texts. Was it Camus who said that anyone who wants to be a philosopher should write novels? I agree that this is a way of reaching far more people than through philosophical books or articles. If my piece on this novel resonates with you, read the novel, if you haven’t already. Or the ones that Richard, Desmond and Sophia refer to. I’m sure you do read those kinds of novels, anyway, judging by the level of your comments – so don’t short-change yourself: you definitely use more than 1% of your potential, and I doubt I am at 7%, but thanks for the compliment anyway. I also have the problem that philosophy is mental masturbation, if conducted in the confines of academia only (the ivory tower), which is why I write here. I also try to ‘practice’ philosophy, otherwise it would be futile to live a philosophical life. Have you read Neuromancer? One of the best science-fiction noir novels ever, and hugely relevant for today. Not only did Gibson give us the terms ‘matrix’, ‘cyberspace’, and ‘microsoft’ (Gates probably got it there), but he also gave us the proto-imagining of a network-society. Prophetic stuff.

    • Garg Unzola

      Do we only use ten percent of our potential? There’s this little rabbit hole called Wikipedia where anyone can reach the level of competence within their grasp (maybe even beyond).

      There’s also a great deal of effort by the Western Literati to disseminate knowledge to the common man. More on that here:

      Neuromancer (link to the full text at the bottom if anyone wants to read it) is significant for many reasons, least of all for establishing the cyberpunk genre and for introducing the themes that many subsequent authors have dealt with differently. One of my favourites: Neal Stephenson.

    • Rene

      The other two members of the Sprawl series by Gibson are just as readable, especially Mona Lisa Overdrive. The character of Molly Millions is enough to make a corpse fantasize…

    • Richard

      @Enough Said, I was interested to read that you said that “Modern Western Philosophy is nothing more than mental masturbation”: would you contrast that with another type of philosophy? I am interested in what philosophy you would not regard as “masturbation” and why.

    • WH Greeff

      Christopher, the unpredictable narrator, plays the role of the good doing protagonist. He grew up in a world that intertwined good and evil. When Christopher was a child, his father would represent the evil/bad in his household, as he was earning a living through the dangerous opium trade. His mother represented the good in his household, as she opposed the opium trade. Evil prevails though, as he loses both his parents for suspected opium reasons.
      Ishiguro’s roman noir, “When we were orphans”, shares aspects similar to that of noir films. A proper noir film has good and evil intertwined as well as the impossibility of separating good and evil from individuals and society at large. In film noir, the plot seems misplaced causing the audience confusion. The films plot is not predictable. Film noir is much more understanding of the structure that is life, as opposed to the Hollywood main stream films. That is why film noir and this novel in particular, “When we were orphans”, is incoherent, as it reflects an incoherent world.
      An unpredictable narrator, detective, femme fatale and a number of characters with questionable morals are all included in the novel as well as noir films.
      The novel is a time puzzle that the reader must put together, this replicates classic noir. Each section of the novel is a part of Christopher’s life, which has been assembled in the wrong order. The reader is tasked with putting the pieces together in the correct order.

    • WH Greeff

      The opium industry as a whole represents diabolical evil. Meaning that the opium industry is hell bent on doing evil, it has no options, besides constructing and executing evil plans and events. The industry is responsible for the disappearance of Christopher’s parents, who were destined to be affected negatively by the trade, because of his father’s involvement as well as his mother’s objection to the trade of opium.
      Evil is represented by the harsh and extreme events that occurred before Christopher had to move to England, as nine year old child. The reader feels as if the evil in the novel is over powering or overbearing. The evil in the novel is challenged though, by the love that his mother has been harbouring for him since her disappearance. This love is equivalent to, if not outweighing, the evil.
      Ishiguro highlights many aspects of humankind, in the novel, that help us understand the way in which we operate. Both sides of the scale are represented in the novel, for example pain compared to pleasure.
      “Unconscious desire undermines conscious reasoning.” This extract stands out as Christopher’s desire to find his parents has overwhelmed his ability to reason what is the safest and best option. For example he flees to Shanghai in order to fulfill his desire of finding his parents. He doesn’t stop to reason that presently Shanghai might not be the safest place to go as there is conflict between China and Japan.

    • Ted-Allan

      Prior to reading this book, I was already familiar with film noir and its conventions, encountering the genre in a literary format did prove to be very challenging; yet, at the end, it was just as rewarding as any (good) film noir I’ve seen.
      One thing in particular that struck me was the character of Jennifer, the protagonist Christopher Banks’ adopted/orphaned child. For a character whose very nature is entirely symbolic of the title of the book, she has very a little – some would say insignificant – presence. On initially being introduced to the character, 10 chapters into the book, I thought that she would provide an optimistic twist that would make the admirable Christopher take on a hero like figure – much like Liam Neeson’s role in the Taken films. But typical of the noir genre, the motive for Christopher’s mission to solve the investigation is one that is purely selfish.
      This aspect (of abandonment and neglect) that Ishiguro brought across in the book reminded me how pervasive the noir template can be in terms of interpretation. I thought that what Ishiguro was trying to communicate was that maybe there is comfort to be found in the evil that exists among the human condition and in society, but only when one acknowledges it at the right time – Jennifer’s initial response to Christopher bringing up the topic of her parents was: “It’s all right. I’m not upset. After all, they were just things.”
      Furthermore, considering the fact that presumably Jennifer had been…

    • B de Lange

      In “When We Were Orphans”, through the Lens of Roman Noir, it is clear that every human being is in a constant battle between good and evil and that one continuously has to distinguish between the two. This is what I think Kant referred to as the ineradicable ‘rooted evil’, as previously stated in the article. As human beings, we constantly find ourselves ‘caught-up’ in the predicament of choice. The choices we make are good or bad not both, if it were that easy, we would not be having this conversation.
      The features of Roman Noir, meaning dark fiction, is brilliantly displayed throughout Ishiguro’s novel: the detective (Christopher), the femmes fatales, the character with dubious morals (Uncle Phillip), the corruption (Opium trade) and the pervasive sense of evil exposed in each society (Shanghai and England). Moreover, the elements of Noir seem quite normal, in comparison with modern civilisation, as we strive for the ‘good’ but cannot escape the evil. The ‘evil’ forms a great part of our daily lives and everyday we become use to it or even succumb to it. This is what I meant by the choice between good and bad and the ‘how to choose’ between the two, as they are inseparable.

    • Ashleigh

      My attitude towards this novel has undergone somewhat of an irregular metamorphosis, possibly even disfiguring in a way, which fits quite well considering the destabilising effect of both film and roman noir. Initially Ishiguro’s marvelous command of the English language had me hooked. I found his vocabulary stimulating and his odd phrasing style extremely refreshing and fluid like. In keeping with the positive I must also give praise to his understated yet potent implementation of the noir genre and its components. As mentioned in the article all the relative aspects were there. More specifically, the notion of light versus dark was one I found myself identifying at quite a pace, finding some direct or indirect reference to it on nearly every page. It came across hauntingly through various plains within the text- observations on Christopher’s part, personal and platonic relationships between characters, conversations and also the basic surroundings. Furthermore, the way in which Ishiguro displayed the nature of evil as both radical and diabolical was beautifully executed through building the foundation of the novel upon radical and then introducing diabolical through the complexity of the opium trade. He strips us of the blanket-like idea that evil in all of its various forms will only taint the lives of the under privileged and lower class- a realisation that is truly terrifying.

      However, as I progressed through the narrative I became increasingly irritated by…

    • Ashleigh

      Understandably, selfish motives are an integral part of the noir genre but his blind drive to find his parents was, as Bert aptly put it, child-like and increasingly annoying when compared to his social status and the maturity it claims to encompass. Fair enough, Ishiguro obviously did this in order to fully display how evil by its very nature can contaminate and threaten to destroy even someone as praised as Christopher Banks but his sudden self-righteous outbursts, namely with regard to the young taxi driver and the Chinese Lieutenant, really put me off the novel and it’s intention. I think Ishiguro’s message regarding the truth about evil would have come across just the same, if not more powerfully, had these whiny embellishments been spared. On a lighter note I did find the culminating events of the novel (the truth about Christopher’s parents) original and illuminating as far as communicating the cruel and elusive nature of evil as a force.