Share via Email Shadowy purposes … Kazuo Ishiguro. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian The Unconsoled is a difficult, perplexing and uniquely challenging book. There are also moments of exquisite comedy. Then again, this position is also potentially interesting; partly because this is a book with such a high dropout rate that I now know as much as some readers ever will, and partly because at this stage I have so many questions in common with Ryder. I currently have the same problem as the narrator while he moves through the story. But this is a confusion that makes me feel all the more curious and empathetic, and all the more tempted to speculate.

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The ticket inspector approaches. But you know, you really let me down last night. He does not remember any promise he might have made to get together the night before. As the young folk say, awkward … This scenario, repeated and varied, helps give The Unconsoled its reputation as one long, uncannily distasteful anxiety dream. Ryder has made promises to people, or is told he has, and then he is accused of not keeping those promises.

Unfortunately, he finds himself mysteriously unable to open his mouth and tell them who he is. In many of his celebrated novels—such as An Artist of the Floating World , The Remains of the Day , and Never Let Me Go —Ishiguro forces his readers to inhabit the consciousness of an irritatingly blinded protagonist. The Unconsoled is different. Understandably, many readers have been unwilling to suffer through so many chapters of high and unrelieved anxiety.

Why does Ishiguro sentence his readers to such long-term unpleasantness? Every culture has its rules, written and unwritten, dictating the particular obligations its members owe to particular other members: what spouses and friends, parents and children can legitimately expect from each other, the very different things that are to be expected from participants in a business transaction, and so on. They may not strike an outsider as good rules, but they command how that culture works.

In this novel, however, those rules seem to have been quietly suspended. The novel is sometimes described as Kafkaesque, but in Kafka, the uncertainty is rarely experienced by the reader as a liberation. The Unconsoled unhinges social hierarchy, wildly and sometimes wonderfully. But Ryder agrees. And when he eventually finds the daughter, Sophie, she greets him as if she has been expecting him. Ryder gradually recognizes Sophie. It appears that she and he are an item, perhaps even married.

Ishiguro asks his readers a pesky question: why assume that you are always the center of your story, or even the hero of your own life? It is true that Ishiguro has long focused his attention on the sorts of men who conspicuously lack the faculties necessary for ordinary social interaction; indeed his novelistic stock-in-trade includes a persistent formality of speech that can make his characters sound like foreigners, even when speaking their own language—or sound like they fall somewhere along the autism spectrum.

But pause a bit before going diagnostic. And in that case, it would not be abnormal for him to propose a mediatory chat between the pianist and his daughter. Ryder does not curse him out or hang up.

He answers that he will be down before long. The hotel manager says fine, but he will remain standing in the lobby until Ryder arrives. Ryder gets up and goes, seemingly oblivious to this textbook display of passive-aggression. On the other hand, the people who ask Ryder for unreasonable favors, right down to the day of his big concert when Ryder suddenly remembers he has not practiced, or even chosen what pieces he will play , include those to whom he is closest.

And his failure to comply sometimes turns out to be a kind of success. When Ryder does finally steal time to practice for the concert in an unlikely shed on a hillside, he ends up unintentionally fulfilling another untimely and inconvenient request: that he provide piano accompaniment as an old musician buries his deceased dog. This turns out to be the only concert that he gives—to the musician outside who listens while he shovels.

And we are told the music leaves him consoled. To me, this novel is magical because it invents a unique form for a key ethical uncertainty of our time: the anxiety-producing question of how much we owe to invisible strangers, a question which also obliges us to reevaluate the relative priority we give to our near and dear ones.

By my reading, the maddening, but also utopian, undecidability that organizes The Unconsoled is this: what if, when having your bags carried or your ticket inspected, or your breakfast served, or your garbage collected , you could not determine whether the person offering you that service should be treated not just politely, but as you would want to treat a family member or a friend?

Similarly, Ishiguro is asking his readers a pesky question: Why assume that you are always the center of your story, or even the hero of your own life? Everyone has a story, porters and ticket inspectors as much as celebrity pianists. If you are a novelist, everyone has a claim on you, and a pressing one. In this sense, Ryder stands in for his author.

The anxiety is everywhere in the novel, in every awkward or failed social encounter. The effort to satisfy those around one nonetheless is why the novel is as much a utopian dream as it is an anxious nightmare. It is pervaded by the unkept promise of democracy.

The Unconsoled is also radically democratic in the domestic sense. It experiments with representing a world in which there would be nothing abnormal about friendly and intimate equality between a world-famous pianist and the porter carrying his bags in the elevator or the woman demanding his ticket on a tram.


B-Sides: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled”

It also just so happens that I read Ishiguro in what you might call "increasing order of weirdness," and I had heard that this is indeed his weirdest book. Of course, many of its strange qualities have been explored before. The surreality, the language of dreams and nightmares in which the protagonist tries in vain to accomplish simple tasks, the sudden and confusing shifts in setting and perspective, the garbled rationale and bizarre priorities of the natives in a strangely familiar city: all of these elements have been combined and recombined to create the "Kafkaesque" genre. Ishiguro really captures the shifting sands of perception that mark a dreamlike consciousness.


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The Unconsoled



Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled: unanswered questions


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