History: This book was written in 1995.
Plot: 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 novel takes place over a period of three days.
Review: Considered distinct from his other works, The Unconsoled was described as a "sprawling, almost indecipherable 500-page work" that "left readers and reviewers baffled". It received strong negative reviews with a few positive ones. Literary critic James Wood said that the novel had "invented its own category of badness".
While there is no change in Ishiguro’s writing style (it’s stayed the same through all five of his books so far), The Unconsoled is different from all his other work in that it doesn’t permit a "logical reading". Well, actually, the book does give the impression of having a formal structure. It’s about a world-renowned pianist who has come to a (unnamed) central European city to give an important performance, one that somehow also has political connotations for the people of the city. But the narrator, Mr Ryder, seems to have arrived with his mind a clean slate. He learns things about himself and his reason for being in this place only as he goes along: he doesn’t know anything about his schedule and has to be gently rebuked by the organisers; little annoyances and distractions continually detract from his main purpose, although he himself appears unaware of what exactly that purpose is; he meets an unfamiliar woman and her child and begins a conversation with them, o nly to realise after a few minutes that they might be his own estranged wife and son; he encounters figures from his distant past who he hasn’t seen in years, and who have no logical reason for being here; and he meets other people who could be real or could be versions of himself at different stages in his life.
One way of looking at it, I suppose, is that the central character suffers from a form of short-term memory loss (a la the protagonist in the film Memento). But that explanation doesn’t even begin to provide the key to all of The Unconsoled’s mysteries. Ishiguro plays with time and space: a porter delivers a 4-page monologue during an elevator ride that should have taken no more than a few seconds; a hotel employee takes Ryder to the "annexe" which turns out to be a ramshackle hut atop a hill, several minutes’ drive from the hotel; after an exhausting day, Ryder goes to sleep at what seems a perfectly reasonable hour, only to be woken a few minutes later so he can "see to the next item on the agenda". On a conventional plane, the book just doesn’t hold together. This is indeed a nightmare of dislocation, as a reviewer put it.
And yet, remarkably enough, Ishiguro’s themes shine through this confused tapestry. This very enigmatic book is, among other things, about the unrealistic, often debilitating expectations parents have of their children, the demands of a life lived in the public glare, and the myopia that allows people to substitute superficial rewards for the things that really matter (in this context, the novel’s ending, with Ryder happily regarding a sumptuous buffet laid out in front of him in a city tram, blew me away).
Entire passages are very frustrating (from a structural point of view, you have to be at least a little interested in surrealism, otherwise the irritation level is very high). I also have this theory that if it’s the first Ishiguro you read, you’ll hate it. Besides, the themes have to appeal to you, otherwise you’ll be left cold. (Something I haven’t mentioned about the book, incidentally, is that it is also very very funny in parts. But that, again, is if you get drawn into its very strange world.)
To a large degree, the surreal effects are derived from Ishiguro's bending of space throughout the novel. Places that seem far removed from one another turn out to be easily accessed through a series of narrow passages or underground tunnels, much like I imagine mazelike corridors beneath DisneyWorld (itself a rather surreal space). While a number of reviewers use this feature to bolster their argument that the novel represents a dream, it most reminded me of how individuals suffering from dementia attempt to rationalize their disorientation.
Once I made this connection, I read the remainder of the book in the context of Ryder (a concert pianist called to an unnamed Eastern European city to assist with an artistic crisis) as an individual with dementia. He is, like those suffering from dementia, apathetic toward others and seemingly unconcerned by how his behavior might affect them. A diagnosis of dementia would also explain his seeming ability to know what people are thinking and the events that have occurred just prior to his entering a room. He is delusional, and his delusions serve the functional purpose of helping him fill in the blanks of his increasingly porous memory. Ryder displays other symptoms of dementia, including a lack of attention to personal appearance (he attends a number of functions in his dressing gown), impaired judgment (he leaves his son alone for hours at a cafe), disrupted sleep cycle, attention deficits, and impulsivity.
The novel is punctuated by analepsis and a consistent hiatus of communication as Ryder tries to understand what his purpose is in the city. Eventually our understanding (filtered through Ryder’s meagre consciousness) is enabled to realise that Ryder is the artistic saviour for the small, musical community, whose culture is desperate for reform and hope.
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
Opening Line: “The taxi driver seemed embarrassed to find there was no one- not even a clerk behind the reception desk – waiting to welcome me.”
Closing Line: “Then, holding it carefully in one hand, my generously laden plate in the other, I began making my way back to my seat.”
Quotes: “I became aware of a single figure walking towards me through the stationary clusters of people.”
“I took a deep breath, a panic now beginning to seize me, and tried again, only to produce another, this time more prolonged, straining noise.”