Trespassing Journal

When We Were Orphans: Memory and Ratiocination in Fictionalised History

Ela İpek Gündüz


Memory is an important tool for human beings wanting to understand their lives. This is because memory allows us to connect the past and the present, using the past to explain the present. Yet though memory has this important unificatory function, we know that it also has the capacity to mislead the person who speculates about it. Memory’s fragility and misleading potential has been used as a narrative tool in various works of literature; thus Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel When We Were Orphans uses the memories of its narrator as reflections upon a distorted version of the human mind and history. In that novel Ishiguro portrays a quasi-detective whose memory is misleading to both himself and to Ishiguro’s readers in its fictionalization of the history of China and in its blurring of the personal realities of the detective himself. By relating past memories to present facts within the narrator’s memory in the novel, health Ishiguro offers explanations of the narrator’s trauma, depicting these childhood fantasies in conjunction with adult realities in a plot that recalls detective fiction. Thus the narrator, Christopher Banks, relates his personal story to public history as a fictionalized projection of his memory. This article will deal with the detective-narrator’s struggles amidst misremembering and forgetting (a process that we might think of as psychological ratiocination), and his consequent narration of his story through the combination of the fragmented elements of his own identity and an account of traumatic historical events.

In When We Were Orphans Ishiguro depicts a fantastical blending of his Japanese roots and a more realist depiction of his English upbringing. He does this both through the fictionalising of history (using such events as the Sino-Japanese War and the Opium Wars) and by using the mechanisms of the murder-mystery plot to provide the structure of his novel. Ishiguro employs his mixed roots to explore blurry spots in his mind – a blurriness that is reflected in the psychology of his main character, Christopher Banks. This incarnation of the pseudo-detective not only misinterprets the English and Japanese environment, but also misremembers Chinese history and his own personal history. In this way Ishiguro deals with the misleading capacity of the memory of a detective, thereby challenging the convention that a detective should remember every detail.

Kazuo Ishiguro as a displaced author

With its twinned world wars the twentieth-century became the era of exiles and involuntarily displaced people. In fact, representative twentieth-century man might be said to be doomed to be estranged from his roots and past; this estrangement is perhaps the quintessential modern trauma. Ishiguro experienced just such a trauma. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and he came to England when he was five years old with his father, mother and his two sisters. They originally planned to stay in England for only a short period, but Ishiguro finally remained permanently. Ishiguro’s home is, then, an in-between one – neither Japanese nor English – a place including both a Japanese departure and an English arrival. His personal history therefore represents what might be termed “estrangement” (Lewis 1), an issue that inevitably affects the function of his memory. Ishiguro, because of his “bicultural upbringing”, feels himself a “homeless writer” and he writes beyond national limitations. Although Ishiguro gives importance to the depiction of specific places in specific times in their historical circumstances, these certain instances are only “hauntingly present in the narration itself” (Matthews and Groes 3). Subsequently, as an international writer, he mainly focuses on the dilemma of the individual while depicting the historical time and place as the backbone of his novels.

Traditional ratiocinative detective fiction versus postmodern detective fiction

The analysis of the novel will depend on Ishiguro’s subverted employment of the ratiocinative functions of the classical detective fiction. Therefore, at this juncture it may be helpful to explain in more depth the mechanisms of traditional detective fiction. Classical detective fiction has been defined as “static, formulaic and contrived… [Yet, its] ‘game rule’ structure provides opportunity for inversion and subversion of those rules …” because of the reader knowing the game. This is the nature of traditional ratiocinative detective fiction (Delameter 74). This means that, because readers are conscious of the rules of the game, they understand what is going on ratiocinatively. The method of detective fiction has conventionally imputed to its demonstration of what Poe called “ratiocination” and Arthur Conan Doyle “intellectual acuteness” (Rzepka and Horsley 81). In Ishiguro’s novel, however, the detective-narrator’s psychological ratiocination undermines all the ratiocinative conventions of the classical detective genre.

In that respect Ishiguro’s novel resembles postmodern detective fiction because “it possesses a lack of centre and a non-solution” (Delameter 74). The postmodern detective fiction is both about a detective trying to find his purpose in the text and his position in the narrative because, the postmodern novel is self-reflexive and detective fiction is about solving a case.  In Ishiguro’s case, there is no objectivity in this new detective fiction. Readers are obliged not only to find the truth that the detective seeks to sort out themselves, but also the author’s intention while finding the missing objective of his mind. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that traditional detective fiction uses the same kind of plot mechanisms, postmodern detective story subverts the structuralised plot by replacing answers with questions. In Ishiguro’s novel the narrator functions as the intermediary; as both the figure who acts as the detective and as the narrator who subverts everything through his subjectivity and misleading memory.

The trauma of existence:

In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro reflects the general trauma of human beings’ estrangement in the world and the specific trauma of his narrator as the actor of the subjective traumatic experience. Ishiguro thereby manages to show the fact that trauma is commensurately important in historical novels because of these works’ goal to show both the temporality of certain events and the continuous effects on people of the unfolding of trauma within history. When he fails to know some past events, he uses his imagination and narrates them in a belated way through his remembering the events. Besides, in When We Were Orphans, with the narration of the protagonist, on the one hand, Ishiguro shows “the disruptive impact of traumatic experiences on the storage of memories” (Barnaby 119) as psychological ratiocination, while, on the other, as a detective searching for the truth he demonstrates the misleading function of his memory as a device for deconstructing the conventional ratiocinative function of the detective plot.

Belatedness in When We Were Orphans

To understand the subverted ratiocinative function of Ishiguro’s novel as an example of the new detective novel it will be useful to understand the concept of belatedness itself. For Freud, past and present are intermixable, or rather, the past can be activated in the present and produce life-changing effects. Not only is time collapsible, but the passage of time itself generates the conditions of possibility for what-will-be-trauma to actualise itself as consciously experienced trauma (Rickert 23). Nachträglichkeit[1] describes a structure whereby an event occurs, is forgotten or remembered in a benign manner, and remains as such until a later time, when, through the accumulation of the new memories and understandings, the earlier memory re-surfaces. But it does not return in the same way; it is now transformed (Rickert 23-24). Likewise, the whole narration in When We Were Orphans is the belated story of the detective’s mind re-invigorating the effects of the buried past–which is the very source of the trauma.

This remembering/forgetting mechanism is unavoidable in all narrations or discourses, because all knowledge is derived from the past, affecting the subject in a belated way. As Lyotard writes “Nachträglichkeit marks the unconscious’s permanent threat to consciousness, in which the time of the past, buried in the unconscious, is looming, ready at any moment to deliver its blow to consciousness” (qtd in Rickert 25). How people “analyse, write or historicise it” in the “threat of the blow from the unconscious, from the past made present” is still a question mark: “The threat remains nebulous because it is caught up with the problem of remembering, which is also say forgetting” (Rickert 25). According to Freud, “Nachträglichkeit is activation, not a recollection. The past comes forward as trauma because of the passage of time” (Rickert 25). Yet, because discourse runs backward in time “Nachträglichkeit is not just activation. It is a retro-activation. Within this structure all knowledge takes on a character of belatedness” (Rickert 25).

The detective’s search for his identity

In When We Were Orphans, from Banks’ belated version of the historical past, the traumatic effects are traced. From Banks’s recounting we learn that he lived his childhood in the International Settlement at Shanghai in colonial China. After his father, an opium merchant, and mother’s unexpected disappearance, he goes to England to live with an aunt. This loss of his parents has a traumatic effect on his psychology. To solve this problem, he unconsciously decides to become a great detective and solve all the mysteries around him, especially that of his lost family. Being a detective also leads Banks to ratiocinate what happens in those times in his recounting of the past in his belated version.

Banks’ starting point for both his inquiry into his past and his understanding of his Japanese roots is the traumatic experience of his childhood. Throughout his narrative (which makes up the fictional domain through which he puts his memory into words), he tries to find his own identity. He therefore consciously struggles to tell his own story by demonstrating the relationship of narration and identity. The traumatized identity of the narrator reveals the difficulty of reconstructing the narration shattered by personal sufferings in the middle of a disordered historical era. It was the time when the National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China and the Imperial Japanese Army of the Empire of Japan had the Battle of Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. The war was the result of the imperialist aims of Japan to dominate China politically, militarily and economically. Banks’ parents both are included in as witnesses of the processes of this outrageous war and Banks as a child was not aware of those serious incidents. Later he founds himself in the middle of the war, fighting imaginary.

Fragmented history through the ratiocinated personal story of the narrator

Ishiguro reconstructs history while constructing his own story in a fragmented way. Even identifiable locations in the historical present turns out to be made up of haunted moments from the narrator’s memory. As Hutcheon asserts “…both history and fiction are discourses; human constructs, signifying systems, and both derive their major claim to truth from that identity” (“A Poetics” 93). Similarly, some specific instances of the Chinese history are told from Banks’ perspective this time. One instance of the narrator’s personal reality connected to public history is Uncle Philip’s nickname ‘Yellow Snake’, telling us that he was a Communist double agent for Chiang Kai-shek. In this way Banks fictionalises the general historical facts by transforming them into his personal life story. The narrator also chooses to tell events from an individual perspective, as Martin argues: “History…as private revisions of public experience, or even as the elevation of private experience in public consciousness, forms the epicentre of the eruptions of contemporary fictional activity” (“A Poetics” 94). It is, therefore, inevitable that in the fictional domain Ishiguro as the writer and (like a historian) reflects the historical events that he himself wants to depict by choosing specific instances from his own memory. How Ishiguro makes the real history, the detective’s subverted ratiocination and the adult narrator’s belated blend of reality/fantasy would be gone through.

Part I: The detective’s ratiocinative psychology overwhelms the conventional ratiocinative function of the murder-mystery

In the first part, the narrator/protagonist is introduced in a strange place (London) and separated from his native country and past. The idea of being an orphan (as a traumatic experience) is emphasised both by Christopher’s losing his mother and father and by the breaking of his ties with his own country and his past. This loss offers us an example of the psychological ratiocination that the novel depicts. Christopher says: “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… at a boarding school like ours, we had all learned to get on without parents…” (Ishiguro7). Then, suddenly, the narrator introduces himself as a real detective, who is trying to prove himself to the London High Society. The public gathering of Charingworth is important for Christopher because he both introduces himself to the public as a detective and speculates about his position, ridiculing the stereotypical image of detectives: “…detectives tend not to participate in society gatherings” (Ishiguro 14). Even this fake atmosphere in the party reverses the real detective story that has to begin arousing the suspicions of the readers.

Christopher decides not to socialise, becoming, instead, a lone detective who tries to focus on his own private profession, maintaining an air of mystery around his job. As opposed to classical depiction of murder-mystery plot, Banks does not begin investigating the main event, which is the loss of his parents. Rather, Ishiguro plays with the conventional ratiocinative function of the detective plot, the tracing of reality. Instead of focusing on the case that he has to investigate, Banks deals with society’s expectations of detectives and the functions/images of such detectives. In that respect, Ishiguro begins undermining the conventions of the classical detective plot:

…the first-the story of crime-tells “what really happened,” whereas the second-the story of investigation-explains “how the reader (or the narrator) has come to know about it”. But these definitions concern not only the two stories in detective fiction, but also two aspects of every literary work…They distinguished, in fact, the fable (story) from the subject (plot) of a narrative: the story is what happened in life, the plot is the way the author presents it to us (qtd in Malmgren 21).

Ishiguro does not, however, construct the plot in accordance with this convention of “the story of the crime” and “the story of investigation”; he instead employs a unified pattern of Banks’ story/ storytelling so that he can show the mechanism of memory, both by remembering the past and forgetting the trauma. The narrator, step by step, tells the reader how his memory fails him both in terms of remembering the actual events, and re-evaluating them through his present outlook.

Recounting the past through such narration allows Banks to give meaning to his life, by contextualizing individual moments of confusion within an apparently coherent narrative. On a number of instances, Banks comments that he did not understand the importance of a particular event until evaluating it later on. In this way, his desire to organize his life into a belated narrative allows him to make sense of his traumatic past and helps him to constitute his identity. By putting his memories into language, Banks is able to confront his traumatic experiences. By parodying the conventional detective plot, Ishiguro adds a second dimension to the sense of mysterious layers of the depths of the protagonist’s mind. Both the traumatic experiences of the detective and his subverting the mechanisms of being a detective deconstruct the conventional ratiocination of the narration because the narrator reinterprets everything with his present outlook.

As the plot progresses, the first person unreliable narrator turns more to his personal story than his case. In this way he misleads the reader both by focusing more on his private experience and by moving away from his profession as a detective. Colonel Chamberlain says: “My poor lad. First your father. Now your mother. Must feel like the whole world’s collapsed around your ears. But we’ll go to England tomorrow, the two of us. Your aunt’s waiting for you there. So be brave. You’ll soon pick up the pieces again.’ For a moment I was quite unable to find my voice” (Ishiguro 30). This part signifies both the narrator’s childhood experiences as a boy who lost both mother and father and almost loses his hometown and his fragmented position as a narrator. After revealing this memory, the unreliable narrator blurs all the details about his life: past/present; fact/fiction; remembering/forgetting; public/private; reality/fantasy; home/exile and adulthood/childhood. The Colonel says: “After all, you’re going to England. You’re going home” (Ishiguro 33). In his childish world, Banks’ sense of belonging and understanding of home and displacement is mixed. As the adult narrator remembering these memories, he re-evaluates everything through his present perspective. The belatedness of the retelling of past memories functions so as to reveal the blanks of the narrator’s mind. As a detective who is in search to find the truth, he reaches the blurred spots in his mind.

As a result, there is a break in his experience. Ishiguro’s use of first person narration makes the novel both subjective and unreliable in the sense that the narrator tries to remember the past events from his childish perspective and sometimes it becomes hard to distinguish the past and the present, the reality and the fantasy. Ishiguro asserts:

I didn’t want to write a realistic book with a crazy narrator. I wanted to actually have the world of the book distorted, adopting the logic of the narrator. In painting you often see that […] where everything is distorted to reflect the emotion of the artist who is looking at the world. […] The whole world portrayed in that book starts to tilt and bend in an attempt to orchestrate an alternative kind of logic (qtd in Machinal 80).

Instead of being in a place full of clues, Ishiguro’s narrator even fails to trust his own mind and memory. At the same time, contrary to traditional detective narration, in which the main aim is to reveal the detective’s solution, Ishiguro focuses on the distorted mind of the detective. Furthermore, this distorted retelling of the personalized story of the detective is the version of the history that has been chosen deliberately by the narrator.

Part II: Denaturalizing history – fact and fiction blurring…

In the second part of the novel Banks focuses on his childhood memories and loses himself in the domain of the fantasy. Ishiguro claims that “In each section, [Banks’] mind has gone further away from what we call reality. When he returns to Shanghai the reader is not sure if it is the real Shanghai or some mixture of memory and speculation” (Finney 148). It could therefore be said that, while conveying these public/private events, as the narrator, he continually confesses the fact that he is unreliable in the sense that he could have forgotten some of the events and, as a child, he could have misinterpreted what he saw: “Consequently, I cannot be sure today how much of my memory of that morning derives from what I actually witnessed from the landing, and to what extent it has merged over time with my mother’s accounts of the episode” (Ishiguro 69). Both kinds of ratiocination are therefore invalid in Banks’ narration, because he deconstructs his own deductions by undermining the evidence he has found.

While Ishiguro likens Banks to classical detectives in terms of his appearance; he also parodies the conventional functions of the detective by reversing the detective’s mind, which does not finally lead either him or his readers to a solution. With the inclusion of subjectivity and an excess of emotions overwhelming the rational aspects of the book’s central event, he also deconstructs the suspicion-building aspect of the detective plot. Direct access to the detective’s thoughts, which should hold the capacity to solve the mystery, is impossible in classical detective fiction because of its form and conventions. The behaviours of the detective should therefore remain mysterious because of the fact that the solution should be dependent on his process of detection (Smith 14).

Because Banks lives in a fictional place (in London) through which he aims at reaching the private and public facts (of Shanghai), he fails to find enough evidence both to solve his own case and the historical realities. In a way, he turns out to be an actor playing the detective. As Machinal asserts: “The role of a detective is a public role, but the very theatricality of Banks’ enjoyment of the position is instructive, associating him with fiction and drama, with spectacle, rather than with the detail or mechanics of sleuthing” (Machinal 85). Banks describes the scene in which he kisses Sarah thusly: “She carefully put down her cigarette holder and stood up. Then we were kissing – just like, I suppose, a couple on the cinema screen” (Ishiguro 222). His detective journey through Shanghai deconstructs the reliability of the case he is investigating because of the distrustful aspect of his past memories that are beyond realistic depiction.

The mystery of Banks’s narrative does not stem from the unrevealed reality of the truth. Instead, the confused mind of the detective who uses first-person narration that is full of subjectivity to prevent readers from reaching an ultimate truth. In fact, the whole idea of an ‘ultimate truth’, represented in the neat judgement and incarceration that inevitably concludes the conventional detective story, is called into question. He describes his mother’s anti-opium campaigns against “the Great Opium Dragon of China” (Ishiguro 72) and, both like a detective and a historian who is in search for truth, he tries to find evidence:

A few years ago, I did spend some days in the Reading Room of the British Museum researching into the arguments that raged over the opium trade in China during those times. As I sifted through many newspaper articles, letters and documents of the day, a number of issues that had mystified me as a child became much more clearer (Ishiguro 75).

Banks continues to insist that he follows this research in order to find clues about his mother, but finds himself finally disappointed, not finding her name; only Uncle Philip is finally referred to as “that admirable beacon of rectitude” (Ishiguro 75).

At this point Banks resembles a historian whose narration turns out to be detective-historiography through the documents related to those times and fictionalizes it. From this perspective, it could be said that in historiographical writing also there is a real version of the historical event and the other version written from the perspective of the historian with his interpretations. In this way, Ishiguro denaturalises the realities of a historical period by personalising such past events. Therefore, as Linda Hutcheon writes: “… the past is not an ‘it’ in the sense of an objectified entity that may either be neutrally represented in and for itself or projectively reprocessed in terms of our own narrowly ‘presentist’ interests” (“The Politics” 57). Likewise, Ishiguro, by recreating the past with his own perspective, emphasises the non-objectivity of the history filtered through the minds of the characters in his work.

After this, as a narrator, he confesses that he is subjective and selective while conveying the past; while he shows the untrustworthiness of both historian and biographer in the sense that they both select and omit material, and go on to subjectively interprets them:

I suppose I must then have told her a few further things from the past. I did not reveal anything of any real significance…I was surprised and slightly alarmed that I had told her anything at all… For the truth is, over the past year, I have become increasingly preoccupation encouraged by the discovery that these memories – of my childhood, of my parents – have lately begun to blur (Ishiguro 80).

The narration then goes on to further blurs Banks’ confused mixture of reality and fantasy, past and present, and subjectivity and objectivity. He begins telling his childhood memories about his father’s disappearance; his friend Akira recommends him to play a new game: “About Christopher father… If you like, we play detective. We search for father. We rescue father… And that was how it began, what today in my memory feels like an entire era…” (Ishiguro 127).

Part IV: dream versus reality

In part four the narrator turns to the childish/dream world – Shanghai, in which reality and the fantasy of the detective’s mind is mixed. Personal and the social/historical facts are also fictionalized within this subjective dream world: regarding Chinese-Japanese enmity MacDonald insists: “The Reds are savages in these matters. But it’s matter between the Chinese. Chiang Kai-Shek’s well on top of the Reds and plans to stay that way, Japanese or no Japanese” (Ishiguro 186). These speculations sound like a reality but Mr. Grayson’s being charged by the organisation of the welcoming ceremony of Banks’ family is like a fantasy. He asks: “… [Are you] happy with the choice of the Jessfield Park for the ceremony?” (Ishiguro 188). This organisation sounds like a fantasy because, as a detective, his arrival in Shanghai is too early to solve the Yellow Snake issue or his parents going missing, and it is absurd to think that he can definitely find his parents. Jessfield Park is also the place that Christopher and Akira were using in their youthful detective games. He continues to try to find the traces of his lost parents by relating their history to the Yellow Snake incident, a clue that relates to both the factual and fictional and the public and personal. Surprisingly, then, he is brought to what he thinks is his old house, and which now belongs to an old man called Mr. Lin – who, in turn, decides to give the house to Banks because of his belief that the house really belongs to the Banks family. Ishiguro fictionalises history from his own perspective by being: “…more interested in what people tell themselves happened rather than what actually happened” (Finney 148):

Historical fiction is a nexus for the past and the present where desire is at once expressed and denied; where fact and fiction merge, separate, and dissolve; a place of utopian wishes and dystopian reality… And, in some cases, where there is fictionalized history, once cannot help but enter the land of fantasy (Montrose 588).

In Ishiguro’s novel, the detective and fantasy worlds are constructed through a textualised version of the Japanese history.

Part VI: the investigation of the detective

In chapter six of When We Were Orphans the investigation really begins with Banks’ investigation of some clues, interrogating the Chinese detective Inspector Kung. Kung is important for the case, because he was the one who originally charged to investigate the shooting in the restaurant, Wu Cheng Lou; and the suspect implicated in that crime went on to confess that he was the one who had committed the continuous kidnappings and was in command of the gang who had been keeping the captives afterwards. Kung suddenly remembers: “There was one house. I remember now. My men brought me some reports. All the other houses, seven of them, I received reports… One last house, no report. My men were being prevented in some way…” (Ishiguro 242). Then, however, he goes on to declare that he confuses some of these events: “The Wu Cheng Lou shooting. It is over twenty years ago. I am sorry. I can remember nothing about this house… Sometimes I remember nothing, not even of the day before” (Ishiguro 244).

While Christopher is on the right path to finding his parents, an important clue follows him: inspector Kung remembers the address: “The house we could not search. It is directly opposite the house of a man called Yeh Chen… the blind man. The house you seek is opposite that of Yeh Chen the blind man” (Ishiguro 257). When Banks asks the driver he learns that his house is nearby, he decides to go and find the truth. But because the district is in the war zone of the Sino-Chinese War, the driver does not want to go there. He then travels to the Chinese camp and meets Lieutenant Chow who promises to help him reach the house. But because many soldiers had been killed he recommends that Banks stop and wait until the fires stop. Banks, however, insists on going on, because of the seriousness of the case and because he is on the verge of finding the truth. Yet, the more he seems to be finding clues to reach the solution, the more he loses his sense of reality and ability to rationalise the evidence.

In the midst of the battle he finds a wounded Japanese soldier lying on the ground, and immediately recognizes him as Akira. Christopher wants his help to find his parents and Akira accepts, but all these events turn out to be a part of the narrator’s childhood fantasy: “Once, a small boy ran forward to hurl some mud at us, but was immediately hauled back. Then Akira and I were at the doorway – the door itself had disappeared – and staggered through into the next house” (Ishiguro 298). Banks’s childish detective games with Akira blur into the real war. As Akira states: “Important. Very important. Nostalgic. When we nostalgic, we remember. A world better than this world we discover when we grow. We remember and wish good world come back again. So very important. Just now, I had dream. I was boy. Mother, father, close to me. In our house” (Ishiguro 310). Even his dreams and realities serve his mind’s subverted quasi-ratiocinative memory. Therefore, the readers begin speculating about the verity of every detail in this belated narration.

Ishiguro does not separate story and plot[2]; he instead blends investigation and solution to depict the fictionalised version of the historical fact within his memory as a result of the traumatic experience that he had in the past through his belated deductions. In other words, Banks does not use tricky ways to challenge the true version of the reality; instead he follows the true pattern that will lead him and the readers to the reality. The difference of his narration from classical detective fiction is that he himself is deceived by his lack of reliance on his own memory, forgetting some details about the childhood experiences related with the issue. “To recall what one did not know at the time is to recall in the light of a later event, or an outcome, or to view past in the mode that is sometimes referred to as teleological retrospect. The mode of teleological retrospect is to explain past events in the light of later events, and therefore to confer on those events a significance that they did not possess at the time of their occurrence” (Currie 97).

Towards the end of the novel, when they finally reach the house, Christopher is both relieved and confused: because firstly, the corpses in the house were not his parents; secondly, he is at the apex of his blurring of reality and fantasy, past and present. “My memory of these moments is no longer very clear. But I have a feeling it was at this point, just after I stared through the glass at the women’s stump, that I suddenly straightened and began to search for my parents” (Ishiguro 319). He then confesses his confusion of reality and illusion to Colonel Hasegawa: “I thought he was a friend of mine from my childhood. But now, I’m not so certain. I’m beginning to see now, many things aren’t as I supposed” and the colonel replies: “Our childhood seems so far away now… One of our Japanese poets… wrote of how our childhood becomes like a foreign land once we have grown” (Ishiguro 325). They then express their personal understandings of the Sino-Japanese war and imperialism. Christopher says: “…You… must regret all this carnage caused by your country’s invasion of China”; and the Colonel replies, “It is regrettable, I agree. But if Japan is to become a great nation, like yours, Mr. Banks, it is necessary. Just as it once was for England [he continues:] the entire globe, Mr. Banks … will before long be engaged in war. What you just saw in Chapei, it is but a small speck of dust compared to what the world must soon witness” (Ishiguro 326).

At the resolution of the detective story Banks finds the Yellow Snake – Uncle Philip, who tells him the real events about his parents. He states that:

Your father ran off one day with his mistress. He lived with her in Hong Kong… Then he got typhoid and died, in Singapore…The detectives? Uncle Philip let out a laugh… wouldn’t have found an elephant gone missing in Nanking Road… Your mother was devoted to our campaign. To stop the opium trade into China. Many European companies, including your father’s, were making vast profits importing Indian opium into China and turning millions of Chinese into helpless addicts… our strategy was rather naïve. We thought we could shame these companies into giving up their opium profits… That way, the country could be run virtually like a colony, but with none of the usual obligations… Wang Ku became sympathetic to our cause… taking your mother to satisfy him (Ishiguro 340-342).

With this confession, we understand that both Christopher’s mother’s personal sacrifice is related to the public welfare and the private detective’s childish fantasies are related to the fictionalized version of the Sino-Japanese War. Furthermore, in the resolution, there is no one who is to be condemned as guilty, and there is no resolution of the public disorder. The gaps in Banks’ memory are filled with the real sources and reasons of his trauma, which lead him into nothing.


In classical detective fiction the main aim of the detective is to restore a social order that is threatened by a guilty person, whereas in Ishiguro’s fictional world Banks’ mission is related to his personal quest to save his parents and find his own identity through the narration of his trauma. It therefore seems that Banks is performing the role of the detective in a place peculiar to the world of detectives, but in reality he is a person who is in search of his own past and identity by naming his traumatic past.

In this respect it could be inferred that Ishiguro uses historical material as a setting for his characters (as he uses the detective genre) and in this way he defamiliarises the actual historical facts. The confession may be regarded as the real plot of the detective story. Yet, it is interesting that, contrary to the conventions of classical detective fiction, the person who reveals the truth about the case is not the detective. After all his efforts to find his parents and find a solution to the public disorder, Banks could not change anything; instead he discovers the reasons for his trauma (through psychological ratiocination) and continues his life. As a result, because of the impossibility of restoring order, Ishiguro’s plot does not finally reach ratiocination and resolution.

[1] “For Freud, the concept of Nachträglichkeit [belatedness] suggests that in the present moment new meaning is attributed to the memory of a particular past traumatic event” (Yiassemides, 108).

[2] “The unique formal pattern of the detective story genre lies in its double and duplicitous plot. The plot is double because the story is first narrated as it appears to the bewildered bystanders who observe the crime and are to some extent threatened by it, but who cannot arrive at its solution. Finally, through the detective’s reconstruction of the crime, the true story of the events is given along with their explanation. This doubling is duplicitous because, in the first presentation of the story, the writer tries to tantalize and deceive the reader while, at the same time, inconspicuously planting the clues that will eventually make the detective’s solution plausible” (Delameter 11).

Works Cited

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Currie, Mark. “Controlling Time: Never Let Me Go." Contemporary Critical Perspectives: Kazuo Ishiguro. Matthews, Sean Groes Sebastian. London: Continuum International Publishing, 2010, 91-103. Web.

Delameter, Jerome. Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction. London: Greenwood Press, 1997. Print.
Finney, Brian. English Fiction since 1984: Narrating a Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New york: Routledge, 1988. Print.
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Suggested Citation

Gündüz, Ela ?pek. “When We Were Orphans: Memory and Ratiocination in Fictionalised  History.” Trespassing Journal: an online journal of trespassing art, science, and  philosophy 3 (Winter 2014). Web. ISSN: 2147-2734

Ela ?pek Gündüz, was born in 1978 in Gaziantep. She is graduated from Dokuz Eylül University, Faculty of Science and Letters, American Culture and Literature Department in 2000 and she completed her master’s degree at Ankara University, the Faculty of Language, History and Geography, English Language and Literature Department in 2004. She has been working as a research assistant at Gaziantep University, English Language and Literature Department for twelve years. Her research interests include women writers, gender studies, postcolonial literature and postmodernism. She has been a Ph.D. student at At?l?m University since September 2011. Currently, she has been studying for her dissertation about neo-Victorian novels.