This week, a new story, best beloved, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel, The Unconsoled. It is, essentially, the story of a concert pianist, Ryder, who has come to an unnamed Central European city to perform a concert. I first read Unconsoled twenty years ago after enjoying Ishiguro’s other books and found it amazing and challenging. Some initial reviewers were rather negative—notably James Woods and Michiko Kakutani—but over time, the book’s strengths have become clear to most. It has been described as an extended shaggy-dog story, meaning an extremely long-winded anecdote characterized by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax. Others have noted how the story seems to be structured like a dream and that, as a result, there is a subtle internal cohesion. A not incompatible view calls the novel surrealist.
I tend to go more with these latter opinions. I do not think the digressive stories in Unconsoled are irrelevant at all. To me, the book is under the influence of Franz Kafka, who did not write about shaggy dogs.
The phrase dream-like conjures images of your pet dog suddenly speaking to you in British English, and this is the sort of thing that occurs regularly in Unconsoled. (not literally). The book is also characterized by a particular and pervasive mood—puzzled irritation and shame.
“The taxi driver seemed embarrassed to find there was no one—not even a clerk behind the reception desk—waiting to welcome me.”
This first line encapsulates a central idea in the book: we are unable to meet the expectations of others. Ryder (and the taxi driver) expects someone to welcome him to the hotel but has arrived late. His reception committee couldn’t wait any longer. Finally, Ryder is able to check in, and the porter, an elderly man named Gustav, seems on the point of collapse carrying Ryder’s luggage. When Ryder asks if this is so, Gustav tells him a long story about how he makes a point of carrying two suitcases at once and never putting them down. This is because Gustav believes others expect this of him because he is a professional porter. In other words, it is essential to meet others’ expectations—even if it is traumatizing.
Poor Ryder must contend with a cast of characters who continually ask him for favors which he is not sure he’ll be able to satisfy as no one—including the concert promoters—will tell him what his schedule is or where he’s supposed to be. He is lost in a world where everyone has expectations that he help them. Meanwhile, his own expectations are not met.
The story is told in a straightforward manner up to the point where Gustav is showing Ryder his room. Ryder thinks: “it occurred to me that for all his professionalism…a certain matter that had been preoccupying him throughout the day had again pushed its way to the front of his mind. He was, once more, worrying about his daughter and her little boy.”
There follows a long story about how Gustav helps his daughter have time to herself by taking charge of her son for a few hours but that, recently, he had observed Sophie, his daughter, “sitting alone, a cup of coffee before her, wearing a look of utter despondency.”
Ryder continues: “In fact, it was the recollection of this incident that had lent him (Gustav) such a preoccupied air down in the lobby, and which was now troubling him once more as he showed me around my room.
“I had taken a liking to the old man and felt a wave of sympathy for him…I dismissed him with a generous tip.”
Now, this may seem straightforward, however, the problem is that Ryder has no way of knowing about this family problem of Gustav. Gustav has at no point told him about his worries. So how does Ryder know?
Well, perhaps, you say, this is the omniscient narrator chap speaking. Oh, if it were so simple! No, there’s a clear statement that Ryder himself realizes this about Gustav.
A mystery, my friends.
Ryder, tired from his journeys, goes to bed. “The room I was now in, I realized, was the very room that had served as my bedroom during the two years that my parents and I had lived at my aunt’s house…I looked again around the room, then, lowering myself back down, stared once more at the ceiling.”
Poetic license, you say? Evidence of severe psychological problems?
Nah, it’s a novel. There’s a point to all this.
Then, in what seems to be a key moment, Ryder recalls how as a boy, he used to play with toy soldiers on the carpet and how there was an imperfection on the carpet’s surface. He remembers a particular moment when “it had occurred to me for the first time that this tear could be used as a sort of bush terrain for my soldiers to cross.
“This discovery—that the blemish that had always threatened to undermine my imaginary world could in fact be incorporated into it—had been one of some excitement for me, and that “bush” was to become a key factor in many of the battles I subsequently orchestrated.”
This idea, my friends, that something bad may be recast as something good, is a clue to unlocking the mystery of the story.
‘Kay, let’s leave things mysterious.
Till next time.