Mr Ryder arrives in an unnamed place for an unspecified event and is greeted by characters whose roles and personalities never emerge fully, making the rationality or otherwise of their behaviour impossible to assess. He is thus vulnerable to, by turns, manipulation and delusion.
We learn that Mr Ryder has through the demands of his professional life lost all but tenuous contact with his wife and child - opportunity after opportunity occurs for him to re-engage, but he repeatedly fails to rise to the occasion and withstand countervailing distractions. He has been travelling between time zones, and is constantly surprised that it is night or morning unexpectedly, or he is suddenly overwhelmingly exhausted (but never its opposite). He has been successful and famous, but is now threatened with the downsides: inability to live up to his reputation, survive re-evaluation, or satisfy the expectations of infatuated groupies.
Neither the reader nor the "hero" is clear what his relationship is to this town and country. Is he an émigré returning? From where? Certain scenes remind him of middle England, and he remembers with sudden urgency that he must fly to Helsinki for his next (again, unspecified) engagement. Meanwhile, he encounters this town as an anxiety-ridden stranger: obliged to travel to various engagements without knowledge of geography, transportation modes, or local etiquette. He is nobly intent on fulfilling his mission - whatever it is; but continually disappointed by the inadequacies of officials who tender help in inexact ways and melt away when needed.
Challenged as he is, Mr Ryder clings desperately to familiar markers, and to meeting bodily needs. He is used to staying in international hotels and so knows (or thinks he knows) that the grand entrance will lead to the reception, and the shabby one to "backstage", but even these assessments prove disconcertingly unreliable. Similarly, nourishment is unreliably available, at receptions and unfulfilled dinner plans, and - exacerbated by his diminished sense of time - never at quite the right hour. As the book ends, Mr Ryder finds temporary repose chatting to an undemanding companion on what he perceives as a refreshment-laden bus (but the reader suspects is a Club Class airline cabin), in an interlude between the end of one exhausting round of commitments and the beginning of the next.
Mr Ryder seems not to be aged in years - he has a young son - but shows symptoms of advanced dementia. His constant mental state of loneliness, apprehension and threatened exhaustion - though extreme in form - may strike a familiar chord with readers whose lives are consumed with international travelling, responding to demanding customers or publics and trying to stay ahead of the success curve, while neglecting domestic expectations. The book is in fact an ideal companion for hours spent enduring airport delays, sleepless nights etc. Not only is Mr Ryder a companion-in-distress, but the formlessness of his experience makes this 530-page book easy to keep up with in 5-page bites.
But if this novel were merely "black comedy", the joke would wear thin long before the end. Of course, Ishiguro's intent is serious. He sets the mind spinning on how humans can cope with the intensifying demands of today's high-tech globally-connected society: its relentless inter-personal demands, and challenges to personal identity and responsibility in increasingly crowded and homogeneous communities. Doubtless, over time, we will become more attuned and resilient, through natural selection (bigger brains inside bigger heads?) aided by genomics and AI. But can we survive the transition? The aspects of Mr Ryder's behaviour that tell us he has really "gone under" are his failure to respond to family needs: his young son's frustrated appeals for attention, his vulnerable father-in-law's need for protection. If we cannot nurture our younger and older generations - the "unconsoled" of the title - can humanity survive at all? Ishiguro poses the dilemma, and leaves us to ponder the answer(s). And this itself suggests as one answer, that we may benefit from a broad concept of "work/life balance" which acknowledges the indispensability of private time (for philosophy and/or prayer, to restore the human spirit), alongside our commitments to our loved ones, career and communities.
In this panorama the "characters" play their roles against the backdrop of Kishiguro's principal message: a gray, moribund society has created a cultural paralysis of emotions preventing people from communicating their true feelings to the person to whom it would matter, turning all communication into a banal distortion of these feelings, a mere aping of the socially accepted clichés of the collectivity.
A secondary motif is reflected in those "characters" who are so coarse as to be incapable of feelings: they are like bulldozers which have the force to advance, crushing everything in their path. The main protagonist, Ryder, who represents the supposedly highest expression of our culture - artistic and intellectual excellence - would be expected to have the insight and intelligence to reflect on this scene and explain the impasse. But, in fact, he proves to be just as coarse and devoid of feelings (other than total egoism) as the "bulldozers". The difference between them is that he succeeds in hiding this moral void, aided by the stupidity and conformity of a world which identifies his "refined manners" (or sophistry) with true intellectual depth.
May I suggest that the apparently surreal landscape is easily deciphered if the puzzled reader uses the following key to the novel's symbolism for society's stereotypes.
Ryder: the "Intellectual" whose small, cramped thinking reveals how conceited, obtuse, egotistic, and personally vain he is. His ignorance of human relationships leads obviously to the mess he has made of his own life. Moreover, he fails utterly to influence anything, and at the "Concert" (the highest cultural expression of the collectivity)he is present but contributes nothing. He neither "makes a speech" nor "plays the piano": he has nothing to give to the creative genius - either to rational thought or art.
Henri Christoff: "Karl Marx" or the Marxist doctrine whose rational schemes exclude all else in the human psyche.
Leo Brodsky: "l'ancien régime" of 19th century Western culture representing the old "virile" virtues and passion, but full of self-pity for being "rejected", with the single desire of returning to "the way things had been".
The "Sattler Building": belief in "Satan" with its "tall, white cylinder-shape, windowless except for a single, vertical slit near the top"; this is fundamentalist religion, which, along with Brodsky, is being proposed as a "new road" in opposition to the "failed Christoff".
Hoffman: the "Petit Bourgeois" of Western culture - with his masochistic personality struggling to conform and join the upper middle class,
Gustav: the Porter or "Working Class" - the Horse of George Orwell's "Animal Farm", the early trade union "Brother".
Miss Collins: the "Psychoanalyst" who sincerely wants to help by letting the "towns people" talk to her and ask advice, though her own personal relationships are unresolved and her analyses are old and worn, both outdated and rather artificial.
Geoffrey Saunders: the "Typical, nostalgic Englishman" who was once "the Golden Boy of School", but "Family Troubles" (end of empire) prevent him from becoming "Captain of the Team" and he ends up lonely and a failure in life.
Parkhurst: the "Inhibited Englishman" who rejects the "braying Englishman", but still feels "lonely" for the "braying" because it was the only form of communication he knows, just as "clowning" was his only way not to be "dull".
Sophie: the "Woman" who is bogged down by the small details of daily routine, blinded to the hopeless nature of "her man", hoping against hope that he will change and provide affection to her.
Boris: the male who goes from "Boyhood to Maturity" destined to take the non-existent male adult's place in the affections of the Mother.
Stefan: the "Son" who is used by his parents as a scapegoat in their own personal battles and threatened by "castration" by the jealous "elder male".
Unlike "The Remains of the Day," "The Unconsoled" is set in a distinctly Eastern European city (I personally thought of Prague when I read the book) and contains none of the very proper "Englishness" that Ishiguro evoked so perfectly in "The Remains of the Day." And, while most of Ishiguro's other books are very "clean," "The Unconsoled" is complex and multi-layered; it is filled with ambiguity and surreal juxtapositions that only grow as one delves deeper and deeper into the world inhabited by Ryder and those around him.
Ryder, an Englishman, is a world-renowned pianist who has traveled to an unnamed European city where he is expected to give the performance of a lifetime. The trouble is, Ryder can't remember traveling to this city or even agreeing to play there.
It's clear that the city's inhabitants feel their future is riding on Ryder's performance. This city is a city beset with problems of one sort and another, but its citizens all seem to feel that these problems can be solved through aesthetic (here, take "aesthetic" to mean "music") progression and appreciation and they are depending on Ryder to fill the void. This turns Ryder from a confused and dazed musician into a something of a cultural messiah. Or does it? Can aesthetic appreciation solve a plethora of woes or does it simply lead to woes of another kind instead?
The main story problem in "The Unconsoled" is the town's desire for Ryder to rescue them from their lack of artistic development. Although this may seem difficult to accept as a story premise, in the hands of a writer as skilled and as experienced as Ishiguro, it is very believable indeed. Part of what makes it so believable is that it is presented as something that is very concrete while the rest of the book is quite dreamlike and surreal.
While in this strange city, Ryder encounters both friends and strangers who just happen to know many of the intimate details of his life. Ryder himself, gains the ability to know and to understand things that he couldn't possible know and understand...under normal circumstance. Even the very landscape itself, becomes a dreamscape, with cafes connecting to hotels through dreamlike tunnels. What is real? What isn't? And where is the line that separates the two? Is there one?
"The Unconsoled" is a book that will raise far more questions than it will ever answer...at least in one reading. I think too much analysis ruins its effect; it's best to simply accept "The Unconsoled" for what it is...and for what it isn't.
Ishiguro's writing, always perfect, is very stylized in this book and, although the book is quite long, it moves along very quickly. Are we inconsolably lost in a dream or in a nightmare? And what, if anything, will ever rescue us? That, to me, seems to be what Ishiguro is asking in this book. But, as to answers, well, this talented author isn't giving us any. At least not any that are clear-cut, for no clear-cut answers exist, either for Ryder, the citizens of this unnamed city, or us.
"Well, the narrator and his forgotten child-to-support and the woman who may or may not be his... Read more