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Book review: “The Unconsoled” by Kazuo Ishiguro

In 1989, Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about a British butler, was published to great acclaim and great sales.  The book was soon turned into a highly praised movie with Anthony Hopkins starring as the manservant, Stevens.

Six years later, Ishiguro published his novel The Unconsoled to almost universal mystification.  One critic complained that the novel was so bad that it “invented its own category of badness.”  And it’s easy to understand the bewilderment.

Remains of the Day is a seemingly simple straight-forward story that focuses on a central character with easily relatable problems and has a narrative arc that gives the reader a sense of story and closure.  It is also infused with a single emotion, sadness.

The Unconsoled is nothing like that.

Instead, it is a novel that denies the reader most of those supports that simplify the act of reading and give the endeavor its flow and framework. It is a novel that doesn’t mimic life as the reader lives it or reflect emotions in the way the reader feels them.

Indeed, it demands that the reader adapt to a world of chaotic human physics, embrace deep ignorance and random gaps of blindness.

Yet, for readers who are willing to take Ishiguro’s story on its own bizarre terms, The Unconsoled is rich, inventive and thought-provoking.

Elastic, fluid and weird

No question, the world of The Unconsoled is weird.

Time, for instance, is elastic.  Ryder, perhaps the world’s finest living pianist, is the central character of the book.  In his three days in a smallish unnamed Central European city, he experiences, say, on a given afternoon, many more incidents, events and adventures than there is room on the clock for.

Geography, as the reader knows it, has no place in The Unconsoled.  Ryder will be driven a long way from his hotel in the center of the city to a meeting far off in a forest, and, when it’s time to get back, he will walk through the kitchen of the meeting place and, through a connecting door, into the kitchen of his hotel.

Ryder almost never knows where he’s going.  Yet, he sets out and, sometimes, is frustratingly lost while, at others, he’ll just happen to see something that might be where he is trying to go.  And sometimes he’s right.

Human relationships are fluid in a way they aren’t in the world you and I live.  For instance, in the opening pages of the novel, Ryder meets Gustav the hotel’s veteran porter who, although having just met the dignitary, asks Ryder to speak with the porter’s daughter Sophie to bring about a reconciliation between them.  At the moment, the two only communicate through Sophie’s son Boris, who seems to be about nine or ten.

Only later does it arise that Ryder is married to Sophie and Boris is his son and Gustav is his father-in-law.

“Hanging open”

Cause does not always translate into effect.  Logic often doesn’t hold.

Ryder, wearing only his dressing gown, is cajoled out of the hotel to a large evening gathering at which he is asked to give a short clever speech.  However, when he finally gets the audience’s attention, this is what happens:

“I cleared my throat a second time and was about to embark on my talk when I suddenly became aware that my dressing gown was hanging open, displaying the entire naked front of my body.  Thrown into confusion, I hesitated for a second then sat back down again.”

No one gives any comment on his “entire naked front,” and the crowd goes back to debating the best kind of statue to create to memorialize the dead dog of a conductor named Brodsky.

A short time later, Ryder gets a second chance:

“Quickly ensuring my dressing gown was fastened, I clambered up on my chair.”

Everyone quiets down again, and Ryder gives the first phrases of his remarks, only to be distracted by a woman known as the Countess who, sitting before him, begins a conversation with him.  When the long conversation is done, Ryder gets down and walks away, the rest of his speech not given.  It seems.

The next day, however, he is complimented, to his surprise, more than once about what an adroit speech he’d given.

Dreamlike

The scene is one of many that are likely to lead the reader into thinking that perhaps Ishiguro’s entire novel is a dream.  And that may be the case.

If so, however, Ishiguro never gives a glimpse of an existence in which this dream is, just that, a dream.  This world in which Ryder is living in these three days — and it seems to be his world before the start of the novel and after its conclusion — is, it seems, his world.  He has, it appears, no world to awaken into.  At least, Ishiguro indicates none.

Within the dreamlike quality of the story, music plays a key role.  Ryder has been brought to this city not simply to give a recital but to give a major address about the nature of the issues facing the city. 

And not only that, but, it seems to be hoped, that he will also endorse Brodsky as the city’s new cultural leader, replacing a musician by the name of Christoff.

Ryder and the other musicians are all experts in the most modern music which features such esoteric techniques as crushed cadences and ringed harmonies and pigmented triads and the circular dynamic.  As far as I can tell, these techniques are fictional as are the famous works that Ryder mentions and plays.

The world of The Unconsoled is a world in which a famous musician such as Ryder is a world-tripping diplomat, heading from country to country to sort out knotty problems. 

Music as prose?

It is possible that The Unconsoled is music presented as prose. 

Or prose written in the same way as music.

Consider, for instance, that time is much more complex in music than in the linear experience of seconds, minutes, hours that humans have. 

Also, in music, the musicians may be playing a particular theme, but, suddenly, the composition introduces a different one, and then a different one.  These jumps here and there in the sound-geography of a piece aren’t that unlike what Ryder finds in Ishiguro’s story.

And, in another geography-like aspect, the notes of a musical piece don’t follow tight and hard structures in the way that someone moving through, say, Chicago has to follow the streets and sidewalks to get from here to there.  There is a coherence to the notes even if they aren’t constrained by anything akin to streets and sidewalks. 

There is a fluidity to the notes inasmuch as they are fit together in the piece in a way that is idiosyncratic to that piece.

And, like The Unconsoled, there is no cause and effect in, say, a concerto.  Or, put a better way, whatever cause and effect is there is created by the composer. 

The same is true with the logic of the piece.  These notes follow those notes because of how the composer has fit them together, not because they have to fit this way due to some outside requirement.

Like waking up?

Indeed, these speculations make me wonder the extent to which a piece of music — say, a symphony — is like a dream.

The symphony isn’t a set of completely unfamiliar sounds, but it is a set of sounds that exist in their own musical world. 

When the piece ends, is that, for an audience member, like waking up?

It’s a truism that reading a novel is like visiting another world, gawking at the people and places that the author has trotted out for the reader’s pleasure or entertainment or instruction.  Usually, though, these “other worlds” — even those in a science fiction novel — are basically like the world you and I live in. 

The world of The Unconsoled isn’t. 

There is sadness in this world.  The title, after all, is The Unconsoled.  But this sadness isn’t like that evoked in Remains of the Day.

The musical composition that is Ishiguro’s novel portrays lives that are jagged and askew and off kilter.  Forget the fog of war.  In his story, life is a fog.  Things that should click don’t. 

All is, for each and every one, confusion — and confusion that is little recognized and even less understood.  All is trouble.  All is isolation.

In this world, there is no consolation for anyone who breathes.

Patrick T. Reardon

8.3.21

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