Book Review: When We Were Orphans

Rating: 4 out of 5

BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT!

It's been quite some time since I've read a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, so becoming familiar with his writing again was a memorable experience. I was going to say "enjoyable," but I didn't think that was the right word. Ishiguro's stories aren't enjoyable in the sense that they're lighthearted and easy to read. Far from it. But immersing yourself in the minds of his characters is a journey unlike any other.

When We Were Orphans, published in 2000follows the life of Christopher Banks, who was raised by his English parents in the International Settlement in Shanghai during the interwar period. They become embroiled in the opium trade, with his father inadvertently enabling it on one hand and his mother actively protesting it on the other. When they both mysteriously disappear and young Christopher is unceremoniously shipped back to England, it's up to him to piece together the puzzle.

Christopher, fueled by his desire to rid the world of evil, becomes a renowned detective and eventually returns to Shanghai during the Japanese invasion. But with evil gaining too much momentum, by the time he solves the case of his missing parents, he has lost all hope of returning to his former life.

The pacing of this story was superb, starting off slowly as Ishiguro paints the picture of Christopher's childhood playing make-believe with his close Japanese friend and next-door neighbor Akira, then deepening as he transitions from England back to Shanghai, and finally rushing chaotically through the heart-wrenching climax.

When everything is said and done, Christopher is orphaned once again, but the pain cuts so much deeper the second time, because it extinguishes any promise of a brighter future. Because we spend so much time looking through his eyes, even when we know that the world is mocking him, when the past is revealed we can't help but feel fooled and utterly embarrassed that we ever considered an optimistic ending.

Critics have pointed out Ishiguro's repeated use of the "unreliable narrator" in his work, but during this story, I felt that there was something inadequate about that concept. In an interview with January Magazine, Ishiguro explains:

The traditional unreliable narrator is that sort of narrator through whom you can almost measure the distance between their craziness and the proper world out there. That's partly how that technique works, I think. You have to know that distance quite clearly. He [Christopher Banks] is perhaps not quite that sort of conventional unreliable narrator in the sense that it's not very clear what's going on out there. It's more an attempt to paint a picture according to what the world would look like according to someone's crazy logic. So a lot of the time the world actually adopts the craziness of his logic.

That's precisely why I love Ishiguro: his writing is so enigmatic and multi-faceted, not because he's attempting to recreate the world as it truly is, but rather he's escaping into a world as one individual views it.

As a man born in Japan and raised in England, Ishiguro gravitates toward stories set during World War II. He has been quoted as being fascinated by what type of person he might have been if he was born one generation earlier. I highly recommend his acclaimed novel The Remains of the Day, as it also tells the tale of an Englishman trying to make sense of the tragedies he witnessed during the war.

Overall, I would say that Ishiguro is an acquired taste. You will never walk away from one of his works feeling a sense of resolution. But that's what life is all about; it's never fully understood. At one point in the novel, Christopher has the opportunity to leave Shanghai behind him and start life anew, but not for one second does the reader believe that he will abandon his pursuit. Life cannot start over, no matter how desperately we want it to.

“Perhaps there are those who are able to go about their lives unfettered by such concerns. But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.”

Book Review: Catch-22

Catch-22

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

So I celebrated Independence Day my own way by finishing Catch-22, a novel which examines the real meaning of patriotism. I know that this is a popular read among you fellow book bloggers, so let's jump right into it!

Catch-22, published in 1961, was based on author Joseph Heller's experience as an Air Force bombardier during World War II. But this is certainly not a "war novel," in the classic sense of the term, given the fact that the war itself is merely the backdrop for the interpersonal relationships and hierarchies among the men in the military.

It was interesting to see Germany, Italy, and the Pacific only mentioned in passing, without any discussion of the people (Roosevelt, Churchill, Mussolini, Hitler) that have become synonymous with the war.

Instead, the book focuses on the people who surround Yossarian, a Assyrian with a fictionalized Armenian surname. The story begins on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa with one of Yossarian's many attempts of avoiding warfare by faking an illness--a common avoidance maneuver that even the doctors are in on.

And it's a good thing that the doctors indulge these soldiers, since the commanding officers have made the possibility of discharge futile. Every time the men are close to completing their designated number of missions, the colonels raise the bar so that none of them can go home."

Catch-22" explains the circular logic that keeps Yossarian and his comrades captive: a soldier may only be discharged if he proves insane, but the very act of declaring insanity proves that he is indeed sane, and thus he must continue flying.

But while the subject matter is very serious, Heller does an exquisite job bringing his satire to life. He expresses all the frustration with a refreshing combination of sophisticated wit and masculine brashness. Sure, Yossarian is risking his life every day, frequently losing men he cares about, but he manages to mock his superiors and womanize his nurses with a sense of humor that is often laugh-out-loud funny.

However, I feel that I would have appreciated Catch-22 more if I had read it in an academic setting. This novel is well-outlined and surprisingly intellectual; each character represents something deeper, from the treacherously capitalistic mess officer Milo to the nameless soldier in white, wrapped head to toe in bandages so that no one can recognize him.

Unfortunately, the middle of the novel is bogged down with so many secondary characters that I found at times it was difficult to stay engaged. Without trying to give too much away, the pace picked up toward the end, as I enjoyed the psychotic aftermath of Nately, his lover, and Yossarian's determination to defect.

The ending was not what I anticipated, but readers should be aware that there is a belated sequel called Closing Time (1994). I'd love to hear from anyone who has read this follow-up, considering how generation after generation has gained insight from Catch-22.

People expect criticism of the Vietnam War or the current wars in the Middle East, so for Heller to speak out negatively against American forces during a historically glorified event has made it so Catch-22 has lasted the test of time.

I believe that readers appreciate Heller's honesty and vulnerability, sharing the fears of someone in combat. Yossarian is the classic anti-hero, desperately trying to live forever, even if he dies trying. Although the deaths of his friends have traumatized him, he makes sure he looks out for himself, since no one else will.

My biggest takeaway from this novel is that whether in times of great chaos or the everyday grind, it's important to question authority and define your own morality. Some may call Yossarian cowardly and blasphemous when he forsakes his country and faith respectively, but I respect him for refusing to live as a sheep, taking orders without seeking the answers behind them.

So next time you find that everyone is calling you crazy, remember that insanity is always in the eye of the beholder.

Favorite Quote:"The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them." (Ch. 39)