When We Were Orphans (Anglais) Broché – 7 février 2013
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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 lunch appointment in Piccadilly and began to gather up his belongings. It was as he was leaving, he turned at the door, saying:
"Look, old chap, I meant to say to you. I'm going along tonight to a bash. It's in honour of Leonard Evershott. The tycoon, you know. An uncle of mine's giving it. Rather short notice, but I wondered if you'd care to come along. I'm quite serious. I'd been meaning to pop over to you long ago, just never got round to it. It'll be at the Charingworth."
When I did not reply immediately, he took a step towards me and said:
"I thought of you because I was remembering. I was remembering how you always used to quiz me about my being 'well connected.' Oh, come on! Don't pretend you've forgotten! You used to interrogate me mercilessly. 'Well connected? Just what does that mean, well connected?' Well, I thought, here's a chance for old Banks to see 'well connected' for himself." Then he shook his head, as though at a memory, saying: "My goodness, you were such an odd bird at school."
I believe it was at this point I finally assented to his suggestion for the evening -- an evening which, as I shall explain, was to prove far more significant than I could then have imagined -- and showed him out without betraying in any part the resentment I was feeling at these last words of his.
My annoyance only grew once I had sat down again. I had, as it happened, guessed immediately what Osbourne had been referring to. The fact was, throughout school, I had heard it said repeatedly of Osbourne that he was "well connected." It was a phrase that came up unfailingly when people talked of him, and I believe I too used it about him whenever it seemed called for. It was indeed a concept that fascinated me, this notion that he was in some mysterious way connected to various of the higher walks of life, even though he looked and behaved no differently from the rest of us. However, I cannot imagine I "mercilessly interrogated" him as he had claimed. It is true the subject was something I thought about a lot when I was fourteen or fifteen, but Osbourne and I had not been especially close at school and, as far as I remember, I only once brought it up with him personally.
It was on a foggy autumn morning, and the two of us had been sitting on a low wall outside a country inn. My guess is that we would have been in the Fifth by then. We had been appointed as markers for a cross-country run, and were waiting for the runners to emerge from the fog across a nearby field so that we could point them in the correct direction down a muddy lane. We were not expecting the runners for some time yet, and so had been idly chatting. It was on this occasion, I am sure, that I asked Osbourne about his "well connectedness." Osbourne, who for all his exuberance, had a modest nature, tried to change the subject. But I persisted until he said eventually:
"Oh, do knock it off, Banks. It's all just nonsense, there's nothing to analyse. One simply knows people. One has parents, uncles, family friends. I don't know what there is to be so puzzled about." Then quickly realising what he had said, he had turned and touched my arm. "Dreadfully sorry, old fellow. That was awfully tactless of me."
This faux pas seemed to cause Osbourne much more anguish than it had me. Indeed, it is not impossible it had remained on his conscience for all those years, so that in asking me to accompany him to the Charingworth Club that evening, he was in some way trying to make amends. In any case, as I say, I had not been at all upset that foggy morning by his admittedly careless remark. In fact, it had become a matter of some irritation to me that my schoolfriends, for all their readiness to fall into banter concerning virtually any other of one's misfortunes, would observe a great solemnness at the first mention of my parents' absence. Actually, odd as it may sound, my lack of parents -- indeed, of any close kin in England except my aunt in Shropshire -- had by then long ceased to be of any great inconvenience to me. As I would often point out to my companions, at a boarding school like ours, we had all learned to get on without parents, and my position was not as unique as all that. Nevertheless, now I look back on it, it seems probable that at least some of my fascination with Osbourne's "well connectedness" had to do with what I then perceived to be my complete lack of connection with the world beyond St. Dunstan's. That I would, when the time came, forge such connections for myself and make my way, I had no doubts. But it is possible I believed I would learn from Osbourne something crucial, something of the way such things worked.
But when I said before that Osbourne's words as he left my flat had somewhat offended me, I was not referring to his raising the matter of my "interrogating" him all those years before. Rather, what I had taken exception to was his casual judgement that I had been "such an odd bird at school."
In fact, it has always been a puzzle to me that Osbourne should have said such a thing of me that morning, since my own memory is that I blended perfectly into English school life. During even my earliest weeks at St. Dunstan's, I do not believe I did anything to cause myself embarrassment. On my very first day, for instance, I recall observing a mannerism many of the boys adopted when standing and talking -- of tucking the right hand into a waistcoat pocket and moving the left shoulder up and down in a kind of shrug to underline certain of their remarks. I distinctly remember reproducing this mannerism on that same first day with sufficient expertise that not a single of my fellows noticed anything odd or thought to make fun.
In much the same bold spirit, I rapidly absorbed the other gestures, turns of phrase and exclamations popular among my peers, as well as grasping the deeper mores and etiquettes prevailing in my new surroundings. I certainly realised quickly enough that it would not do for me to indulge openly -- as I had been doing routinely in Shanghai -- my ideas on crime and its detection. So much so that even when during my third year there was a series of thefts, and the entire school was enjoying playing at detectives, I carefully refrained from joining in in all but a nominal way. And it was, no doubt, some remnant of this same policy that caused me to reveal so little of my "plans" to Osbourne that morning he called on me.
However, for all my caution, I can bring to mind at least two instances from school that suggest I must, at least occasionally, have lowered my guard sufficiently to give some idea of my ambitions. I was unable even at the time to account for these incidents, and am no closer to doing so today.
The earlier of these occurred on the occasion of my fourteenth birthday. My two good friends of that time, Robert Thornton-Browne and Russell Stanton, had taken me to a tea-shop in the village and we had been enjoying ourselves over scones and cream cakes. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and all the other tables were occupied. This meant that every few minutes more rain-soaked villagers would come in, look around, and throw disapproving looks in our direction as though we should immediately vacate our table for them. But Mrs. Jordan, the proprietress, had always been welcoming towards us, and on that afternoon of my birthday, we felt we had every right to be occupying the choice table beside the bay window with its view of the village square. I do not recall much of what we talked about that day; but once we had eaten our fill, my two companions exchanged looks, then Thornton-Browne reached down into his satchel and presented to me a gift-wrapped package.
As I set about opening it, I quickly realised the package had been wrapped in numerous sheets, and my friends would laugh noisily each time I removed one layer, only to be confronted by another. All the signs, then, were that I would find some joke item at the end of it all. What I did eventually uncover was a weathered leather case, and when I undid the tiny catch and raised the lid, a magnifying glass.
I have it here now before me. Its appearance has changed little over the years; it was on that afternoon already well travelled. I remember noting this, along with the fact that it was very powerful, surprisingly weighty, and that the ivory handle was chipped all down one side. I did not notice until later -- one needs a second magnifying glass to read the engraving -- that it was manufactured in Zurich in 1887.
My first reaction to this gift was one of huge excitement. I snatched it up, brushing aside the bundles of wrapping covering the table surface -- I suspect in my enthusiasm I caused a few sheets to flutter to the floor -- and began immediately to test it on some specks of butter smeared on the tablecloth. I became so absorbed that I was only vaguely aware of my friends laughing in that exaggerated way that signifies a joke at one's expense. By the time I looked up, finally self-conscious, they had both fallen into an uncertain silence. It was then that Thornton-Browne gave a half-hearted snigger, saying:
"We thought since you're going to be a detective, you'd be needing one of these."
At this point, I quickly recovered my wits and made a show of pretending the whole thing had been an amusing jest. But by then, I fancy, my two friends were themselves confused about their intentions, and for the remainder of our time at the tea-shop, we never quite regained our former comfortable mood.
As I say, I have the magnifying glass here now in front of me. I used it when investigating the Mannering case; I used it again, most recently, during the Trevor Richardson affair. A magnifying glass may not be quite the crucial piece of equipment of popular myth, but it remains a useful tool for the gathering of certain sorts of evidence, and I fancy I will, for some time yet, carry about with me my birthday gift from Robert Thornton-Browne and Russell Stanton. Gazing at it now, this thought occurs to me: if my companions' intention was indeed to tease me, well then, the joke is now very much on them. But sadly, I have no way now of ascertaining what they had in mind, nor indeed how, for all my precautions, they had ever gleaned my secret ambition. Stanton, who had lied about his age in order to volunteer, was killed in the third battle of Ypres. Thornton-Browne, I heard, died of tuberculosis two years ago. In any case, both boys left St. Dunstan's in the fifth year and I had long since lost touch with them by the time I heard of their deaths. I still remember, though, how disappointed I was when Thornton-Browne left the school; he had been the one real friend I had made since arriving in England, and I missed him much throughout the latter part of my career at St. Dunstan's.
The second of these two instances that comes to mind occurred a few years later -- in the Lower Sixth -- but my recollection of it is not as detailed. In fact, I cannot remember at all what came before and after this particular moment. What I have is a memory of walking into a classroom -- Room 15 in the Old Priory -- where the sun was pouring through the narrow cloister windows in shafts, revealing the dust hanging in the air. The master had yet to arrive, but I must have come in slightly late, for I remember finding my classmates already sitting about in clusters on the desk-tops, benches and window ledges. I was about to join one such group of five or six boys, when their faces all turned to me and I saw immediately that they had been discussing me.
Then, before I could say anything, one of the group, Roger Brenthurst, pointed towards me and remarked:
"But surely he's rather too short to be a Sherlock."
A few of them laughed, not particularly unkindly, and that, as far as I recall, was all there was to it. I never heard any further talk concerning my aspirations to be a "Sherlock," but for some time afterwards I had a niggling concern that my secret had got out and become a topic for discussion behind my back. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
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'Ishiguro is the best and most original writer of his generation, and ''When We Were Orphans'' could be by no other writer. It haunts the mind. It moves to tears.' --Mail on Sunday
'His fullest achievement yet.' --New York Times Review of Books --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
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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. Lire la première page
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In my opinion, the author was at his personal best in making me feel as though I was an eager third "chap" along for the thrill & satisfaction of the forbidden adventure in Akira's house, a member of the shallow London society set marveling over the incomparable Christopher Banks and a supportive Dr. Watson along for the thrill & satisfaction of the final forbidden adventure through a disorientingly unfamiliar Shanghai outside of the International Settlement. Ishiguro's backdrops are gorgeous.
Nonetheless, I felt the story lacked momentum, depth and cohesion for want of character development.
Why did Christopher love Sarah, or believe he loved Sarah? I hoped to the end to learn something about this woman that would make me value her as a worthwhile human being. The "bus ride" conversation suggested there was more to her than her social-climbing persona implied, but if there was, we didn't discover it. I concluded that Christopher's attachment to her (when considered in context with his connections to the other important people in his life) had nothing to do with romantic love, but everything to do with her shared status as an orphan and all that imparted to Christopher's capacity for relationships.
Why in the world did Christopher adopt a daughter, and where was the evidence of a true paternal bond with her? I initially thought that entire story line was an afterthought, thrown in to create some tie to England to cause Christopher to return. In my final analysis, Jennifer existed simply to reinforce the fact that Christopher felt emotionally secure only with similarly abandoned persons over whom he could assume the role of protector, derived from his single source of self-esteem, being the great detective.
Why did Christopher behave so cruelly toward the driver and police officer he persuaded to help him on his incredible and dangerous search for his parents? It stood out as remarkable to me, as I could not find a cogent explanation for cruelty in Christopher's background and did not understand Ishiguro's two-time use of it here. Christopher's arrogance was in keeping with his general carriage when he was in detective mode, and his irrational behavior was understandable because he was so close to solving the mystery and was working under an artificial deadline conveniently presented to him by Sarah's offer, which he insincerely accepted knowing full well he wouldn't leave until "the case was closed," a fact that failed to cause him the inner turmoil a true lover would suffer. But the cruelty...?
Why didn't Ishiguro put his perfect prose to paper to describe the panoply of emotions Puffin surely experienced when he met the sought-after informant and finally obtained shocking, psychologically significant answers to life-long questions? I wanted the range of instant responses--rage, anguish and sorrow, toward both the messenger and the various parties involved--and the after-effects--comprehension, acceptance, forgiveness, introspection and yes, even change in Christopher's character.
The reunion with Akira was unsatisfying and sparse on detail of either man's feelings; the reunion with his mother was even more sparingly drawn. The denouement was unnourishing, yet by the close of the book, I cared so little for our Mr. Banks that I didn't hunger for more.
And perhaps there's the rub.... Have I allowed myself to become so spoiled by modern "literature" that I expect to be spoon-fed heroic characters and neatly tied-up endings and am disappointed and therefor criticize the author when I find nothing to admire about the protagonist and wish for a grand finale? Thank goodness Ishiguro didn't give us the much-discussed homecoming party. Thank you, Mr. Ishiguro, for making me think.
When his father disappears, the two children begin to play a different game -- that of being detectives who will root out the evil forces and rescue Christopher's father. When Christopher's mother also disappears, the boy's world completely falls apart. Having lost both parents, he must also leave Shanghai and his friend to return to England and be raised by an aunt.
Thus the narrative jumps between the present -- Christopher as an adult detective in postwar London -- and his past as a child in Shanghai. When Christopher decides to return to Shanghai after so many years to search for his parents, the true story begins and the adventure is as much psychological as physical. After so long, will he discover his parents -- or himself?
Ishiguro's novels have been described by the term 'unreliable narrator', in that the reader must struggle to discern the narrative from 'the truth', as the narrators are constantly engaged in repressing their memories and self-deception. In an interview, he rejected this interpretation of his latest work, describing it instead as a 'postmodern' work. He has tried to depict reality not only as it appears - but as it is - to the confused and troubled narrator. Yet it is questionable to what extent he succeeds - and many may finish the book troubled by its simplistic denouement.
The first half of the book (while Banks is in London) is slow, but the pace picks up in the second half, where Ishiguro begins to employ more readily his favourite brand of symbolism, such as the repeated imagery of looking through glass with distorted vision that then comes into focus. Unfortunately, humor -- so important in Remains and The Unconsoled -- is strangely absent from Orphans. I didn't so much as chuckle until page 213.
Thematically, 'Orphans' borrows much from 'The Unconsoled' -- the obsession with one's parents, the narrator's 'powers', the surrealist situations, the problem of differentiating between reality and delusion. Unfortunately, themes aren't all that's borrowed. Ishiguro also reuses several images taken directly from 'The Unconsoled', which makes one almost feel like he is plagiarizing his own work. Even worse, these images (such as the barrier blocking the protagonist's way), which were strong in 'The Unconsoled' seem watered down and trite in 'Orphans'.
In general, the style of 'Orphans' does not reveal the same attention to detail and smoothness characteristic of Ishiguro's first four novels, which made them all -- in their own way -- masterpieces. The characterization is very poor; all the main characters seem cardboard -- an utter contrast from 'Remains of the Day'. The disappointing style is somewhat tempered by the compelling theme. As before, it is a question of identity, but this time the painful struggle for identity made by those who have been orphaned.
Readers will find this book thought-provoking, but it is not up to Ishiguro's high standards, and ultimately it is unsatisfying. Concerned about the number of people who couldn't read or understand 'The Unconsoled', it seems Ishiguro has adopted a strategy of 'dumbing down' to his audience. This is unfortunate. To see Ishiguro at his best, I would suggest 'Remains of the Day' or 'The Unconsoled', and I would suggest reading them twice - at least - to see how carefully and masterfully he writes.
The novel revolves around events in Banks's childhood in the International Settlement in Shanghai, a few years after the turn of the century. This is an idyllic time, as the days drift by while he plays with his Japanese neighbor Akira. In a bizarre turn of events, his father, who works for one of the large British opium importers disappears-kidnapped according to Banks (although we never hear of a ransom note). Soon after this, his mother disappears as well, also kidnapped we are told. When neither reappears, the boy is sent to England, where he tries to fit into British schools and society. This portion is rather interesting, as it no doubt reflects the author's own experience as a young boy transplanted to England. He continues his tale of growing up to become a famous detective by recounting certain episodes, and his developing friendship with a beautiful, but rather pathetic, society girl.
Banks is clearly not well adjusted-existing in a semi-delusional state where he is in many ways still a child. From his profession as detective to complete lack of sexuality, he is the epitome of self-repression. His adoption of Jennifer, an orphaned British girl living overseas, offers all kinds of possibilities but ultimately leads nowhere, leaving the reader wondering what purpose the subplot serves other than to reinforce the titular theme. When he abandons her to return to Shanghai in the mid-1930s to "rescue" his kidnapped parents, one wonders why he offered his guardianship at all. The scene in Shanghai upon his return is fairly well-wrought, with the International Settlement a small protected enclave as Japanese invaders try to capture the city from Chinese defenders, If you've read J.G. Ballard's memoir, Empire of the Sun or seen the film, you'll recognize the situation.
However, it is at this juncture that the novel starts slipping into the mire. For some reason, Banks seems to think his presence and the resolution of his parents' disappearance will somehow lead to a resolution of the Sino-Japanese conflict-and by extension, world tensions. While we understand at this point that he is deluded, for some reason Ishiguro has the characters around him reinforce this delusion, especially the embassy protocol official Mr. Grayson. At this point, we are confused-for in the first part of the book, Ishiguro uses the discrepancies between statements by supporting characters and Banks recollections to clue us in that his narration is not completely reliable. So, in the second half, when supporting characters apparently support his by now obvious delusions, it goes against the structure Ishiguro's established and renders the narrative a complete muddle. This gets particularly out of hand when in the climactic race to the house where he believes his parents are being held, he encounters Chinese soldiers who both know who he is and eventually agree to help him at the expense of their own orders and safety. At this point the novel loses any hope of redemption, and indeed, when the true circumstances of his parents are made known, it's a revelation worthy of 1950s pulp magazines, not a world-class author.
From the standpoint of pure use of language, the book is lovely and quite readable, what remains mystifying is how Ishiguro could have allowed his use of the unreliable narrator to slip its lead and destroy any sense of sympathy and interest we had invested in the characters and outcome.