The remains of the day with parents

When We Were Orphans By Kazuo Ishiguro Alfred A. Knopf 336 pp., $25

Kazuo Ishiguro has constructed his latest novel with such psychological precision that you'll want to read it through a magnifying glass and turn the pages with a pair of sterilized tweezers.

This tragic story about Christopher Banks, a detective haunted by the disappearance of his parents when he was a child, is a stunning exhibition of narrative skill. Someday, college students will examine Banks the way they study characters in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Henry James. Indeed, as I read this strange story, it was an old professor's advice about Poe that helped me keep my eye on the ball: "It's always about the narrator."

As a child at the turn of the century, Banks lived with his parents in the International Settlement in Shanghai. While his father worked for the trading company of Butterfield & Swire, his mother aggressively campaigned against the firm's importation of opium. Ishiguro portrays how deeply children feel the tensions in their homes and how tragically they misinterpret that atmosphere. Before young Banks can understand the dimensions of this conflict between money and morality, his father vanishes, and a few months later his mother disappears, too. Convinced he could have saved them if only he'd paid more attention, the boy redoubles his efforts to take account of everything within and around him.

In the haze of these bewildering absences, Banks is shipped off to England where he attends fine schools, makes a few formal friendships, and eventually becomes a renowned detective.

In fact, the book sometimes sounds like a parody of a British detective novel in which Banks imagines himself the hero. "Dear Christopher," one fan calls to him after he cracks a long-unsolved mass murder, "that was marvelous what you did.... It was ever so clever of you."

"Thank you," he replies. "It was hardly such a complicated matter."

Despite handling the fibers and fluids of some particularly gruesome crimes, he retains a kind of school-boy idealism about his vocation: "My intention was to combat evil," he tells us, "in particular, evil of the insidious, furtive kind."

Ironically, the very skills that make him such a successful detective - his extraordinary attention to detail, his unwillingness to distinguish between the incidental and the momentous, his childlike single-mindedness - lead him astray as he struggles to understand the tragedy that disrupted his childhood and the currents of his mind.

For this master detective, everything is meaningful, potentially revelatory. But the burden of that kind of vision is a weight of responsibility no man could endure. The disconnection between Banks's careful narration and his increasingly skewed interpretation of events creates a harrowing sense of tragedy that only the most extraordinary author could carry off.

Naturally, the case Banks most wants to solve is the kidnapping of his parents. Twenty years later, after carefully studying the crime records from abroad, he returns to Shanghai convinced he knows where they're being held. He persists in this quixotic quest even as Japanese attacks on the city are sparking the tinders of World War II.

What he discovers - or thinks he discovers - in this city under siege tests his skill as a detective and his faith in the clearly drawn line between good and evil. The synthetic culture of the International Settlement refuses to take any responsibility for the chaos breaking out all around, a position no more tenable than Banks's opposite determination to take responsibility for everyone.

In these ominous, sometimes surreal passages, Ishiguro maintains an exquisite balance between formality and madness. Next Thursday, when nominations for the National Book Award are announced, American authors in the running should be grateful that Ishiguro is British.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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