Crisis? What Crisis?
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, just who are those who are unconsoled?
The definition of the word “unconsoled” is a person or group who is not consoled, consoled meaning to comfort (someone) at a time of grief or disappointment.
So who in the story has experienced a time of grief or disappointment? Ryder, the protagonist, is an obvious candidate. There are suggestions that he has indeed had a traumatic past, and they become more explicit as the book goes on. However, he generally presents a consistently formal and positive face to the reader. As he narrates the story, he does not begin by mentioning any grief or disappointment—directly.
What we do know is that the city that Ryder has traveled to and its inhabitants are characterized as being in crisis, as having suffered from “the crisis.” It’s clearly said that Ryder has been invited to help the inhabitants recover.
How are these things revealed by the narrative?
In Chapter One, the desk clerk tells Ryder that the hotel manager, Mr. Hoffman, will be disappointed he didn’t meet him upon his arrival. Hoffman has been preoccupied with planning for “Thursday night.” What’s implied by the text is that Thursday night will be the night of Ryder’s concert—the reason for his visit to the city.
Ryder reacts: “I simply nodded, unable to summon the energy to enquire into the precise nature of “Thursday night.”
Doesn’t this seem odd?
“Oh, and Mr. Brodsky’s been doing splendidly today,” the desk clerk said, brightening.
This implies that the clerk believes Ryder knows both about Thursday night, and about Brodsky, including that Brodsky is at times not doing splendidly. Ryder states he remembers neither. He relates: “Brodsky—I thought about the name but it meant nothing to me.”
Then as Ryder ascends to his room and hears Gustav’s long tale about the dignity of porters (the dignity of servants is a theme in all of Ishiguro’s works) Miss Strattman says: “…we arranged the meeting with the Citizens Mutual Support Group. The Support Group is made up of ordinary people from every walk of life brought together by their sense of having suffered from the present crisis. You’ll be able to hear first-hand accounts of what some people have had to go through.
“…we’ve also respected your wish to meet with Mr. Christoff himself. Given the circumstances, we perfectly appreciate your reasons for requesting such a meeting…Naturally, he has his own reasons for wanting to meet you…he and his friends will do their utmost to get you to see things their way. Naturally, it’ll all be nonsense, but I’m sure you’ll find it very useful in drawing up a general picture of what’s been going on here.”
“When I entered my room, I was still turning over the various implications of this exchange…
Clearly the city was expecting more of me than a simple recital.”
Ryder does not have the schedule that Miss Strattman keeps referring to. He does not remark in particular about the crisis, but the reader may. Remark on it and wonder: what is the crisis about? Why is Ryder shown as not reacting? In similar fashion, Ryder makes no comment regarding Mr. Christoff nor the mention made of his requesting a meeting with him.
Of course this is odd. Ryder has traveled to an unfamiliar city and is immediately faced with people making demands on his attention and time. And he has no memory of what they’re talking about—only a vague recollection of a schedule written on a lost piece of paper.
It’s odd but let’s remember—this is a novel, not a chronicle of Ryder’s travels. There is a point to this—dare I say? —madness.
What we have learned is that the unnamed city is in a crisis, and that those who have organized Ryder’s visit believe he wishes to help with it by meeting with a committee and a Mr. Christoff. We know too that a major character, Gustav, feels the city has exhibited a lack of respect for those in his profession, that things used to be better. He has been disappointed. The hotel staff is disappointed that Ryder arrived late. Of course, we learn much more—shortly, about Gustav’s family problems, and then that as a boy, Ryder and his parents lived at his aunt’s house for a time. He played with toy soldiers as a distraction from “a furious row (that had) broken out downstairs. The ferocity of the voices had been such that, even as a child of six or seven, I had realized this to be no ordinary row.” And this is the point at which the young Ryder realizes that an imperfection in his play area could be incorporated into something useful.
As the story continues, we learn that all the characters are disappointed in some way by their lives—Mr. Hoffman, his son Stephen, Brodsky, Boris, Sophie, Gustav. And they all look to Ryder for help. Farther on, we will see how Geoffrey Saunders, Fiona and Ryder’s elderly parents share in this sense of being let down—by Ryder himself. And the city is concerned that they are letting Ryder down by the poor quality of the preparations they’ve made for his performance.
Is anyone eventually consoled?
We shall see, my friends.
Till next time.