By Dominic Bradbury
For Kazuo Ishiguro childhood was happy, stimulating, but unusual. The author of one of the most outwardly English novels of recent years, The Remains of the Day, was born in Nagasaki and lived in Japan until he was five and still has clear and fond memories of his last year or two in Japan. But then his father's work as a research scientist in oceanography brought the whole family over to England, to the green outskirts of Guildford and Ishiguro's life changed completely. There was the strange logic of the English state school system, eleven plus, even a horse and cart delivering milk to the doorstep. But the assumption was that it was a temporary arrangement.
"My parents really thought of themselves as visitors observing this odd, strange and very different culture and for their children the idea was that "it's all a good experience for them, but they are Japanese and they are going to grow up in Japan"," says Ishiguro. "They never said "our children will grow up in Britain". So we were brought up as Japanese children who were going to one day live in Japanese society and that had a huge effect. In the back of my mind there was this other world to which I would return and I tried to preserve some instinct of how to behave in Japanese society. That probably didn't leave me until I was well into my 20s and I didn't actually get a British passport until I was 28."
None of the family ever went back. Ishiguro's parents are still in Guildford, just a house down from the one they first stayed in when the family arrived back in 1959, although the green fields nearby have long been turned into extra homes and suburban streets. At 45, Ishiguro himself is settled in a pleasant and anonymous part of Golder's Green with his Scottish wife, Lorna, and an eight year old daughter, Naomi. Yet Kazuo Ishiguro – like any of us – is shaped by his past, shaped by this curious childhood.
A Pale View of the Hills, Ishiguro's first novel which he started working on as a student on the University of East Anglia Creative Writing Course, looked back to pre and post-war Japan and the shifting values of a society in transition. So did the second, An Artist of the Floating World. And his new novel, When We Were Orphans, brings together a cast of English and Japanese characters within the semi-exotic setting of Shanghai. Yet the book's major concern is with this very idea of how childhood shapes us, makes us who we are and helps to form a foundation for the individual way we perceive the world around us.
"Now that my daughter is eight she's much more in the world, but when this extremely vulnerable creature first turns up it doesn't know a thing. You want to deceive this little being into thinking that the world is this lovely place and most adults enter into the conspiracy with you. But as a parent at some stage you have got to help your child move out of this bubble and introduce them to the real world, otherwise it's going to be a disaster. This is the beginning of a rather sad journey that children have to make and sometimes it takes a long time. To a large extent that's what I was writing about in When We Were Orphans, about that difficult journey and in this case it happens to be very sudden and traumatic."
Christopher Banks, the book's protagonist, is a society detective in 1930s London living within a strangely protected, charmed environment. But his adult life is overshadowed by his experiences as a young child in Shanghai and the mysterious disappearance of his parents from the city's International Settlement. As an adult, this disappearance still obsesses Banks while a naive, childlike and sometimes blackly comic vision of the world lives on. His parents never had the opportunity, or perhaps the desire, to break the protective cocoon in which they wrapped their son. But as Banks returns to Shanghai to on the eve of the Second World War, just as Japanese forces invade China, he finds that solving this great case of his life is a far more disturbing experience than he could ever have realised. The cocoon finally starts to crack.
"Banks in some strange way thinks that if he can sort this thing out that went wrong in his childhood, when his child's world collapsed, then he can literally prevent the world from collapsing," says Ishiguro. "At one level it's a strange, fantastic landscape which we are looking at through the eyes of someone who equates these two things, but on another level this is in some way how many of us operate. Banks is not so much a product of the social climate within which he lives as some of my earlier characters were. He's much more the product of what's happened to him. I am more interested now in how some of us base our lives, our actions, on often quite unconscious and unexamined motivations – bonkers mission that we have set for ourselves, often quite early in life."
Ishiguro sees the new book, in part, as a reworking of some of the themes of his last novel, The Unconsoled. Published five years ago, The Unconsoled was a departure using a contemporary setting and a strong, surprising vein of surrealism. It was a book which divided critics in a way none of his other books – generally acclaimed as they were – had ever done, some seeing it as his masterpiece, others seeing it as his mistake. The cumulative effect of the reviews has soaked into Ishiguro's mind and – although both novels are concerned with characters trying to step back into and fix the past – When We Were Orphans has been carefully constructed in the form of a much more accessible book.
The novel toys with the conventions of the detective novel – the insulated, semi-protected worlds of Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie. And perhaps just a touch of Sherlock Holmes, whom Ishiguro was fascinated by as an 11 year old reader, able to answer any 'anoraky' test question that friends might put to him on Conan Doyle's creation. "I thought wouldn't it be interesting to have one of these super-sleuths and instead of visiting a little village to solve a murder, he is plunged into the modern world of war, mayhem and politics with the tools which worked so well for him in the world of the genre. Wouldn't it be interesting if one of these people were let loose trying to avert the Second World War?"
The fact that Ishiguro threw away a whole year's work on the book – a detective story within a detective story which he decided was simply too complicated – suggests how carefully he has been considering the demands he makes of his readers. Returning to the 1930s takes us back to familiar Ishiguro territory – the modern era of crisis when 'values were really up for grabs' – while the book examines a city that he knows not first hand, but second hand. His father was born in Shanghai and grew up in the city around the same time as the fictional Banks. Black and white family photographs show the way the area looked before the war and before Mao.
'I don't actually like going to the places I write about,' says Ishiguro. 'I avoided going to Japan over that period I was writing my early Japanese novels. I find it very important to build a sense of place by pen, it's my world even though I call it Shanghai. A lot of my settings have the overlay of the real world but they are essentially places in my head.'
A fascination with Shanghai has also led to a film screenplay, looking at another segment of the International Settlement of the '30s, exploring the relationship between a white Russian exile and an American diplomat. The White Countess has been written for Merchant Ivory – the same company which successfully took Remains of the Day to celluloid – and the business of trying to raise finance is just beginning.
But for Ishiguro himself a year and a half of promotions, readings and travel to promote the book stretches out ahead of him. Not an easy prospect for a man who likes to remain private, to live quietly. "I only pop out to do my salesman act and I have no interest in becoming a personality in my own right," he says. "I have never wanted to be a famous writer. I want the books to be famous but I would prefer to keep completely in the dark."