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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Criminality of the brutal variety
  • Panayza Lesufi displays his lack of understanding of what a language is all about
  • Popular art and the homogenisation of viewing subjects globally
  • Another important European conference for Afrikaans-speaking philosophers