“The Unconsoled,” by Kazuo Ishiguro
8.5/10, a puzzling but lovely work of magical realism
As I may have mentioned, Ishiguro is probably my favorite contemporary writer (though as Rikoshi points out, I have not read enough David Mitchell, a deficiency I intend to remedy in 2009). Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are an amazing pair of books, and even When We Were Orphans, though not quite as good, was still head and shoulders above most other contemporary fiction. Ishiguro shares with Mitchell a gift for character voice, and both are expert at pulling the reader into the character’s experiences. Ishuguro in particular loves the device of the unreliable narrator, allowing his protagonist to present the reader with “facts” that the reader can only glean from other hints are perhaps not as rock-solid as the narrator might think.
The Unconsoled is more reminiscent of When We Were Orphans than of either of the other two books. The narrator, Mr. Ryder, is a celebrated pianist, arriving in an unnamed Central European city for a recital. It soon becomes clear that this visit is for more than just a recital: Ryder is expected to attend all manner of community functions, to weigh in on local affairs, and especially to witness the revival of a Mr. Brodsky, a former conductor who took to drink but is looking to the night of the recital to resurrect not only his career, but also his image in the town.
So far, so good. But within the first few pages, Mr. Ryder is confronted by his publicist, who assumes he has read his schedule, which in fact he has not. He meets a porter named Gustav, who takes such pride in his profession that he has organized the other porters in the other hotels in town, and they have set up a code for porters to follow. Gustav has a daughter and a grandson, and the daughter is having emotional problems, so he begs Mr. Ryder to do him the favor of talking to her. Ryder demurs, not wanting to be involved in family affairs, but Gustav implores him, and so he agrees, the first in many diversions from the schedule he has not read. When he meets Sophie, Gustav’s daughter, she greets him as though he is part of her family–which it turns out he is; Sophie is his wife, and Boris his son.
These sorts of revelations are parceled out to the reader throughout the book. The puzzling and intriguing thing is that they appear to be revealed to Ryder at the same time. “I suddenly recalled sitting in an apartment with Sophie while she prepared a meal,” he will think, and from there he accepts the familiarity of the situation. It is almost as if he arrives in the city a blank slate, prepared to accept whatever past the inhabitants choose to impose on him.
The world becomes dreamlike in other ways: time dilates, such that an urgent engagement might still be met after three or four diversions; a long car ride from the hotel through the city to a dining hall might end with a walk back through the dining hall to the hotel via a connecting corridor. Buildings connect, places are impossibly far or close, people turn up where they are meant to be without any prearrangement, and Ryder is forever recognizing people from his past.
The various subplots are too numerous to describe, but the main contrast is between the inhabitants of the town, who are all striving to do something, and Ryder himself, who sometimes renders an opinion, but in the end is revered by the townspeople for doing exactly nothing. Forever a spectator, an arbiter, he keeps himself forcibly at a distance from his own life even while lamenting that very distance. The book ends, as many of Ishiguro’s books do, with an analogy that keenly places Ryder’s dilemma (I won’t spoil it by outlining it here). We end with him planning his next visit, to Helsinki, leaving us wondering if he will land in Helsinki and find another family lamenting his frequent trips, another set of past acquaintances, another shadow of a life that is the only substitute he will allow himself.
Ryder has a weaker voice than the other Ishiguro protagonists I’ve read, but the story is no less compelling. Each of the townspeople has a beautifully crafted, often tragic personality, which they are given ample time to explore in monologues to Ryder (or, sometimes, monologues and memories that he somehow “hears” anyway). His eye for detail in description is marvelous, and all the dialogue is outstanding. Despite the puzzling magical realism of the book, I felt compelled to finish it, and actually felt satisfied with it when I was done.
I wouldn’t start with this book if you’re unfamiliar with his work–pick up The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go–but if you love his writing, this is definitely worthwhile. You may be confused, but you won’t be disappointed.
EDIT: I went looking for other people’s opinions after writing this, and found one reviewer who makes an interesting case for Ryder being a dementia sufferer. I prefer to look at it metaphorically, but this is an interesting take on it as well.