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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

What A Character!

My friends, what of the narrational style of The Unconsoled? After all, that’s what I typically write about.

Most simply put, Unconsoled is told in first person, simple past tense. In contrast, critics have pointed out how Ishiguro’s other novels employ different modes of narration—within the same—usually first person–story. Thus, Remains of the Day makes use of a sort of travel brochure narration—an imitation of the kind of prose used in travel books—as well as an “oratorical apologia” in which the narrator defends himself from perceived attack. And there is a confessional mode wherein the narrator confesses secrets to particular others.

Unconsoled maintains one mode—the voice of the protagonist, Ryder. It is a formal and educated voice, often digressive. “…we soon found ourselves descending a steeply curving road. Christoff, who appeared to know the road well, took each sharp bend with assurance. As we came lower the road became less vertiginous and the chalets he had mentioned, often precariously perched, began appearing to either side of us.”

Of course, we could say that there is subterfuge here. Ryder presents himself as eternally polite and composed—despite the most extraordinary occurrences. When he does reveal that he becomes angry—for instance at Sophie—he quickly recovers in an apologetic way. The Ryder of the book, as shown by Ryder, is a character who hides himself behind “niceness.”.

There is considerable dialogue:

“I’m sorry to come like this at such short notice.”

“I’ve told you many times, Stephen,” the elderly woman said. “I’m always here whenever you need to talk things over.”

“Well actually, Miss Collins, it wasn’t…Well, it’s not about the usual stuff. I wanted to talk to you about something else, a quite important matter.”

As I’ve mentioned before, James Phelan describes a particular style of narration in contemporary fiction as character narration (essentially first-person narration), and I think that is the beastie we are seeing in Unconcoled. Phelan says: “Character narration…is an art of indirection: an author communicates to her audience by means of the character narrator’s communication to a narratee.” Thus, on one level, Ryder seems to be addressing an imagined “you” to whom he is telling the story. This “you” only knows what the narrator tells she/he. On another, his narration is addressing the authorial audience who may know more than the narrator.

This phenomenon of a character telling a story brings up issues of underreporting, misinterpreting, and of the reader knowing more than the character narrator does (we saw this in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day).

Ryder, the narrator, tells the story of his visit to the unnamed city in a straightforward manner in that, although at times confused, he does not seem to be “making things up” to make himself look better. However, he does seriously underreport, in the sense that there is much that he doesn’t reveal. Nonetheless, his mental state seems to convey that he is unaware of this underreporting. He just leaves out important material, “accidentally?”

For instance, we will see that he addresses much of his life, including his painful childhood, by externalizing the memories and conflicts he has onto others. And by omitting details, only revealing part of the story. An example is when he experiences his hotel room as being the bedroom he lived in as a child “during the two years my parents and I had lived in my aunt’s house.” Why was this and was it traumatic? Was it due to some loss of the family home or expulsion from a birth country? No answer is provided, only a wistful memory of playing on a square of carpet and realizing an imperfection might be incorporated into a perfect whole.


Is Ryder struggling to avoid something?

We should keep in mind this is not a realist novel. It is not the story of a fictional “real” person, a concert pianist who is plunged into near madness during a visit to a central European city. It is a surreal novel of a person who claims to have experiences which echo events in his own life, events which he doesn’t directly reveal.

The story lies in these surreal occurrences. If Ryder were more forthcoming about his past, there would be no story. What then?

We are talking here about a different way of experiencing the world—not by Ryder, but by Mr. Ishiguro.


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