The Unconsoled

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360

Anita Brookner’s assessment that THE UNCONSOLED is “almost certainly a masterpiece” is the proper assessment for the surprisingly long, astonishingly accomplished fourth novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the celebrated THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1989) and two excellent earlier novels. Set in an unnamed provincial city in central Europe in the 1990’s, THE UNCONSOLED is the story of Ryder, a classical pianist who has been invited to the city to give a concert. Ryder arrives, only to find himself perpetually puzzled by an inability to remember why exactly he is there or where he is supposed to be next at any given moment, and under siege from the maddeningly solicitous and demanding local citizens.

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THE UNCONSOLED is about the elusiveness of identity and the treachery of memory, regret and the hope of redemption. Though its atmosphere is dreamlike, it actually is hyper-realistic, portraying with enigmatic precision of a very high order “real” life as each of us actually experiences it. Like all truly important literature, it raises more questions than it answers: Who is the protagonist? Where did he come from? Why is he here? Where is he going next? Is individual identity— whatever that is—fundamental, or is our inevitable involvement with every other fellow human the bedrock of who we “really” are?

With respect to its author’s career, the question THE UNCONSOLED raises is the same as that posed earlier by THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, raised to a much higher power: Where can he go next? What is left for him to accomplish? What is certain is that with his fourth novel, Ishiguro has both firmly established himself as an important novelist and considerably raised expectations in his admirers and the stakes for himself. He probably will be up to the challenge.

Sources for Further Study

London Review of Books. XVII, June 8, 1995, p. 30.

The Nation. CCLXI, November 6, 1995, p. 546.

The New Republic. CCXIII, November 6, 1995, p. 42.

New Statesman and Society . VIII, May 12, 1995, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. C, October 15, 1995, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXXI, October 23, 1995, p. 90.

Newsweek. CXXVI, October 2, 1995, p. 92.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, September 18, 1995, p. 105.

Time. CXLVI, October 2, 1995, p. 82.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 28, 1995, p. 22.

The Unconsoled

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1813

As of 1989, with three increasingly well-received novels under his belt, Kazuo Ishiguro had yet to take a false step in a career that had gone from strength to strength and showed every promise of developing into a major body of work. A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986) were exquisitely wrought, dialogue-driven and delicate, foreshadowing their young author’s tour de force demonstration of his superb ear for social misunderstandings and things left unsaid in The Remains of the Day (1989). The first two novels were remarkable for being set in Ishiguro’s native Japan, which he had not visited since his family emigrated to England in 1960. The Remains of the Day was even better crafted than its predecessors and remarkable for a complete absence in its ostensible subject matter (the late-career sadness and moral dilemmas of a thoroughly proper English butler) of anything whatsoever to do with Japan. The Remains of the Day brought its author sudden celebrity, winning Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize and inspiring a popular film.

The Unconsoled, Ishiguro’s fourth novel, deals with the elusiveness of identity, the treachery of memory, regret, and the hope of redemption. Anita Brookner’s endorsement—“a novel of outstanding breadth and originality: almost certainly a masterpiece”—seems right. The narrator is a Mr. Ryder, a classical pianist of international renown who arrives to give a concert in an unnamed provincial city in central Europe, only to find himself puzzled by an inability to remember why exactly he is there or where he is supposed to be next, and under siege from the solicitous and demanding local burghers. The town is experiencing an unspecified civic or historical crisis as well, and as the story unfolds it becomes evident that in addition to exhibiting his musical prowess, Ryder is expected to bestow on the locals some equally unspecified but definitive wisdom in the form of a speech. As Thursday night—the scheduled date of the concert—approaches, Ryder’s sense that he lacks control or even adequate awareness of what is unfolding intensifies; he experiences panic and confusion as he tries to meet his commitments and retain his poise and a modicum of control over his experience of the passage of time.

Early reviewers compared The Unconsoled to the work of Franz Kafka; the comparison, even if obvious, is apt. The setting itself is a tacit allusion to Kafka, and the atmosphere of controlled absurdity is reminiscent. There may be as well a sense in which the setting is meant as a deliberate metaphor. If Milan Kundera is right in his intriguing if sometimes shrill claim that the geographic heart of Europe is the heartland of European, hence Western, civilization (see his The Art of the Novel, 1988), then Ishiguro may be making a powerful point about the nature of human civilization itself. It may follow that scattered references to cultural and technological items that place the story in the late twentieth century are intentional. Is it fanciful to suppose that Ishiguro’s point is that, even now, we live within history—that our plight, our world, is the same as that of which Kafka wrote?

The novel’s atmosphere has been described as dreamlike, but in an important sense it is a work not of fantasy but of hyperrealism. “I was keen not to write the kind of thing where people actually grow wings and fly off or anything like that,” Ishiguro told Katherine Knorr of the International Herald Tribune (April 28, 1995). Truth be told, odd things happen in “real” life as well, although in concrete, banal, unfantastic ways. To the extent that any work of literature is successful, it is an articulated metaphor for the “real” world or some aspect thereof. The greatest literature is paradoxically—(paradox being a fundamental trait of the universe humans inhabit) the most precisely enigmatic. If the “real” world were less thoroughly mysterious than it is, there would have existed no need for Ishiguro to articulate the metaphor that he has titled The Unconsoled, whose enigmatic precision is of a very high order.

True narrative is something beyond the pigeonholes labeled “fiction” and “nonfiction,” and it always has a strong picaresque aspect. Narrative in truth is simply a synonym for history (another term usually used too loosely), which in turn is only another word for the fundamental enigma called the passage of time. The odd, implausible ways in which Ryder comes to know things, to eavesdrop inadvertently on other characters’ private lives, to retrieve snatches of personal memory and local history, raise the profoundly intriguing question: How does anyone come to know anything? Are any so-called facts truly verifiable? One’s only authorities are hearsay and experience. Even if “facts” are verifiable—or, equally, if they are not—what, if anything, do they mean? These all are terrifyingly unanswerable, perhaps literally maddening questions, and it is these and their like that Ishiguro has the audacity to address, making astonishingly agile use of conventions of narrative writing, verb tenses, and novelistic devices (such as subtly alternating first- and third-person narration) in ways that underscore rather than resist the apparent absurdity of life as it is actually lived.

If most novels take the stuff of “real” life and mold it, more or less consciously, into patterns designed to satisfy the author’s felt need for sense and order, The Unconsoled seems instead to yield to history as it is truly, contingently experienced. Awareness transcends consciousness, and Ishiguro’s is the awareness of a literary artist of somewhere very near the first rank, a writer who refuses to concede the presumptions of “reality” in any of the vulgar senses in which that term is customarily employed. As readers undertake the arduous work of trying to puzzle out the story’s elusive meaning, they begin to realize that the elusiveness is the meaning, and snatches of phrasing and dialogue acquire a distilled, epigrammatic significance. They may find themselves underlining single sentences, as though these might be partial keys to which they might later need to refer. “I had assumed she was leading me either to a particular spot in the room or to a particular person,” relates Ryder, “but after a while I got the distinct impression we were walking around in slow circles.” Later he tells readers:

Naturally, as I listened to Fiona, I sensed I should be feeling considerable remorse over what had happened the previous night. However, despite her vivid account of the scenes at her apartment, as much as I felt deeply sorry for her, I found I had only the vaguest recollection of such an event having been on my schedule.

Miss Collins, a major character, tells her former husband, the alcoholic conductor Mr. Brodsky, “Of course I forget. Why would I remember such things? There have been so many more vivid things to remember in the years since. . . . How much you live in the past, Mr. Brodsky!” A single clause in Ryder’s tale, referring to a scene he witnesses at a funeral, expands to serve for his presence in the city itself, and beyond that to his (and the reader’s) presence in the place the city symbolizes: “And I could see that in no time things would be as they had been prior to my arrival.”

Perhaps these are the lessons readers are meant to absorb: that truth—certainly factual truth, probably even moral truth—is occasional and contingent; that memory and present experience are no more (or less) real than a dream; that responsibility is inevitable but indefinable; that after we, individually and as a species, are gone, in no time things will be as they were prior to our arrival. The more puzzled the reader becomes, the more powerful the metaphor grows, until truly universal truths seem to come just a bit clearer than they were before.

What may be the tale’s central passage occurs less than halfway through, in a monologue on music Ryder’s rival Christoff offers, uninvited, as they, inexplicably, climb down a steep hillside. “The modern forms, they’re so complex now,” says Christoff.

Kazan, Mullery, Yoshimoto. Even for a trained musician such as myself, it’s hard now, very hard. The likes of von Winterstein, the Countess, what chance do they have? They’re completely out of their depth. To them it’s just crashing noise, a whirl of strange rhythms. Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves over the years they can hear something there, certain emotions, meanings. But the truth is, they’ve found nothing at all. They’re out of their depth, they’ll never understand how modern music works. Once it was simply Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky. Even the man in the street could make a reasoned guess about that sort of music. But the modern forms! How can people like this, provincial people, how can they ever understand such things, however great a sense of duty they feel towards the community?

It is an incisive and, metaphorically, a universally important question for human beings—all of whom are provincial—at the end of the twentieth century. It is not the only question the book raises. Like all truly important literature, The Unconsoled raises more questions than it answers, beginning with: Who is Ryder? (Which is to say, who is “I”?) Where did he come from? Why is he here? Where is he going next? Is individual identity—whatever that is—fundamental, or is our inevitable involvement each with every other fellow human the bedrock of who we “really” are?

With respect to its author’s career, the question The Unconsoled raises is the same as that posed by The Remains of the Day, raised to a much higher power: Where can he go next? What is left for him to accomplish? Ishiguro seems aware—in the sense in which all genuine writers are aware, within themselves—of his direction, if not of his eventual destination. Explaining to the International Herald Tribune why he never writes journalism, he said, “I guess I’ve always felt that as a novelist I’m on a long-term search for something, and I didn’t want anything that was going to interfere with that.” What is certain is that with his fourth novel, Ishiguro has both firmly established himself as a major novelist and considerably raised expectations in his admirers and the stakes for himself. If the trajectory of his achievement through 1995 is any indication, he probably will be up to the challenge.

Sources for Further Study

London Review of Books. XVII, June 8, 1995, p. 30.

The Nation. CCLXI, November 6, 1995, p. 546.

The New Republic. CCXIII, November 6, 1995, p. 42.

New Statesman and Society . VIII, May 12, 1995, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. C, October 15, 1995, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXXI, October 23, 1995, p. 90.

Newsweek. CXXVI, October 2, 1995, p. 92.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, September 18, 1995, p. 105.

Time. CXLVI, October 2, 1995, p. 82.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 28, 1995, p. 22.

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