The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. 535 pp)

Born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, Kazuo Ishiguro moved with his family to England in 1960. Ishiguro attended the University of Kent receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1978 and continued his education at the University of East Anglia obtaining a master’s degree in creative writing in 1980. A celebrated novelist, Ishiguro has been nominated four times for the Man Booker Prize, winning it in 1989 for his work, The Remains of the Day. Recently, Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, was adapted to a full-length film featuring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield. Ishiguro resides in London with his wife and daughter.

The Unconsoled as Broccoli

You know how some things are good for you in the long-run though unpleasant at the moment of? Well, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled feels like green vegetables to me. As an overall work, the novel carries immense depth; reading it, on the other hand, was a chore.

Where Were We?

Set in an unnamed Central European city, Mr. Ryder, the tome’s protagonist, is a prestigious pianist that will give a performance he cannot remember agreeing to give.
Over the course of his three-day visit, Mr. Ryder encounters many strangers with a vague recollection of close relationship to these people. Moreover, Ryder wanders from task to task ignoring the tight schedule his handlers supposedly had given him.

An Apprehensive Narrative

In truth, this somnambulant narrative is extremely frustrating. As a punctual person acutely aware of my schedule, Ryder’s vague disregard for every appointment causes apprehension. I continuously wanted to remind him of his obligations.
Ishiguro elaborates on this confusion,

“For the truth was that my forthcoming address to this city was not only far from ready, I had yet to complete even the background research. I could not understand how with all my experience I had arrived at such a state of affairs. I remembered how that very afternoon in the hotel’s elegant atrium, I had sat sipping the strong bitter coffee, reiterating to myself the importance of planning the rest of the day with care so as to make the best use of the very limited time” (115).

 

On top of Ryder’s clouded recollections, his wanderings leave him unprepared for his many social functions. Forgetting to attend a banquet, Ryder is rushed to the proceedings while wearing his pajamas:

“I cleared my throat a second time and was about to embark on my talk when I suddenly became aware that my dressing gown was hanging open, displaying the entire naked front of my body. Thrown into confusion, I hesitated for a second then sat back down again” (143).

 

Additionally, in an almost frustrating way, Ryder always seems to find himself in the right place at the right time without any sort of foresight.
As an example, Ishiguro writes,

“As I approached the latter stages of the third movement I became conscious again of the digging noise. I was not sure whether it had ceased for a while then started up again or if it had been going on all the time, but in any case it now seemed much more conspicuous than before. The thought then suddenly occurred to me that the noise was being made by none other than Brodsky in the process of burying his dog. Indeed, I recollected his having declared on more than one occasion this morning his intention to bury his dog later in the day, and I even had a vague memory of having agreed to some arrangement whereby I played the piano while he performed the burial ceremony” (358).

 

A Surrealist Interpretation

As I read, The Unconsoled, its dream-like style encouraged me to comprehend it in a surrealist manner. Ryder encounters many people during his visit who resemble him in many ways. While the novel says nothing conclusive, I chose to view these interweaving characters as projections of Ryder’s psyche.
Stephan, the talented son of never-satisfied-with-anything parents; Brodsky, the alcoholic composer loved by many for his talent and simultaneously hated for his vices; and Mr. Hoffman, the man always in search of perfection. I truly find Ryder in each. Of course, Ryder interacts with these characters making my claim rather tenuous, but I believe there is room for this interpretation.

Art Culture and the Cult of Personality

At a deeper level, The Unconsoled functions as critique of art culture and a condemnation of the cult of personality. With a world renowned pianist in town, the citizens fawn over Ryder at his every move and expect him to cater to their every whim.
Although infuriating to read, The Unconsoled possesses literary merit. Kazuo Ishiguro writes with depth and clarity. If you need some vegetables, I recommend this book. If, however, you require easier reading, I suggest you look for your literature needs elsewhere.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5
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2 Comments Leave a comment
  • chris1729

    I've read the Unconsoled three or four times and I've loved it. Yes, it does cause frustration with all those missed appointments and opportunities but I just love the images it conjures up in my head! I agree that the characters could be projections of Ryder himself and I also agree the book is a critique of the cult of personality… however, I love the fact that the book is set in a city which is obsessed by high art! What a great antidote to the constant stream of shallow rubbish emanating from TV and radio, which we're more or less forced to encounter, day in day out. My God, there's no escape!

    You haven't answered the question I've been asking myself (I have to: no-one else I know has read the book!): what's it about?

    I'm sure I'll read it again one day.

  • Donovan Richards

    Thanks for the insightful comment, Chris. Your point about the city obsessed by high art is particularly astute. Clearly, the depth of The Unconsoled requires space that far exceeds 1,000 word book review.

    As for your question, I don't know if I could provide a conclusive answer. Clearly, a simple plot outline does not suffice as an answer.

    Perhaps it is best to turn the question back to you since you've been asking yourself. What do you think it is about?

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