The Unconsoled

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.

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

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...

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