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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Breakfast On The Morning Train

The Unconsoled begins with Ryder, a famous pianist, arriving in an unnamed European city to perform a concert. Through more than five hundred pages of prose, much of it quoted speech, the hapless Ryder meets with continual delay and frustration as he approaches the night of this concert. He encounters a number of at best eccentric people in the city, some of whom he has known long ago. He learns that a civic group has invited him to perform, hoping his presence will help the city solve a crisis. He himself has a weak grasp on what is expected of him.

But at the end of the story, he has been unable to perform the concert or to make any remarks to the assembled citizens. We last read about him as he rides a train that travels in circles around the city. He is hungry and seeks food.

“I filled my coffee cup, almost to the brim. Then, holding it carefully in one hand, my generously laden plate in the other, I began making my way back to my seat.”

Finally, someone has “generously” given him something he wants.

Indeed, is there transformation in Ryder, a significant change the reader can follow as she/he turns the pages? Ryder begins as an outwardly serious and formal person who soon reveals a curious inner-ness replete with painful memories, barely processed.

What does this character need or desire?

Consolation, best B. He needs to receive comfort and support for the hardships he’s endured in life. He desires to not have to help others but for them to help him. However, he has a hard time admitting it.

Near the end, there is a kind of emotional climax when Ryder, seeking information about his parents, who were supposed to attend the concert, engages with Miss Stratmann. At his insistence, she tells him that his parents did in fact visit the city many years ago.

In apparent reaction, Ryder says:

“I am unhappy with everything, Miss Stratmann. I have not had important information when I’ve needed it. I have not been told of last-minute changes to my schedule. I haven’t been supported or assisted at crucial points. As a result, I have not been able to prepare myself for my tasks in the way I would have liked…”

And Ryder thinks: “…suddenly I felt something inside me beginning to collapse.”

“I collapsed into a nearby chair and started to sob. As I did, I remembered all at once just how tenuous had been the whole possibility of my parents’ coming to the town. I could not understand at all how I had ever been so confident about the matter.”

To Ryder, his parents’ coming to the city to attend his concert was to be a supreme act of recognition of his self-sacrifice and achievement, a resonant “thank-you.” But here he learns this possibility will not occur. Miss Stratmann then “consoles” him by telling him about his parents’ pleasant visit to the city in the past, in particular, how his mother had a “nice” view from the hotel where they stayed.

Then Ryder pursues Sophie and Boris, who may be his wife and son. When he catches up, Sophie rejects him, although Boris states they should all be “together.”

“The little boy, hanging back in the throng, looked towards me once more.

“Boris! That bus ride, you remember it?…Remember Boris, how good it was? How kind everyone was to us on the bus? The little presents they gave, the singing?”

But Boris and his mother depart, and Ryder gets on the tram.

“Then I became aware of him (the electrician who’s been encouraging him to have breakfast) leaning forward, pasting my shoulder, and I realized I was sobbing.

“Listen, he was saying, everything always seems very bad at the time. But it all passes. Nothing’s ever as bad as it looks. Do cheer up…Look, why don’t you have some breakfast?”

Ryder gets a plate of food from a hearty buffet set up on the tram.

“…I could feel my spirits rising yet further. Things had not, after all, gone so badly. Whatever disappointments this city had brought, there was no doubting that my presence had been greatly appreciated—just as it had been everywhere else I had ever gone…The croissants looked particularly promising.”

Ryder rides the train, imagining preparations for his next concert in Helsinki, Finland. And this occurs in the morning, after a long night spent at the concert hall, not giving a concert. Waking up after several days and nights of dreaming, perhaps? It’s easy to see why some readers of this novel have decided the whole thing is an elaborate joke.

However, as readers of this blog know, I believe the events and characters of the story all reflect on Ryder, providing an opportunity for him to learn about himself—or at least for the reader. What emerges for me at the end is that Ryder’s time in the city, spent in wacky encounters and preparations for a performance he never has, is not unlike a childhood. His parents inflict pain—perhaps unintentionally because of their own problems. Yet he blames himself and dreams of pleasing them, showing them he has value, but never has an opportunity. They disappear. One of the people he encounters is a young boy who must take care of his mother much in the way Ryder apparently had to take care of his own mother. His parents and that boy are part of the climax of the story.

Allegory, anyone? The city, in crisis, is his childhood.

In going to the city, Ryder enters a theater of characters who show him his life thus far. Admittedly, his reaction is rather understated.

Perhaps the author’s target is more the reader.

Thanks, as always, Mr. Ishiguro.

Next week, a new work, my friends.

Till then.


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