Unknown countries (5): The Unconsoled

Posted by Ken Edwards on Wednesday, January 20, 2010 Under: writing

This is an investigation of eight novels incorporating the fantastic, with a view to drawing some conclusions about the place of speculation in fiction.

This is the one that surprised me most out of the eight – and in a favourable way.

The book had lain on the shelves here unread for ten years. To be honest, I’d never had any great desire to get started on it, or on any other book by Kazuo Ishiguro. Nor had I seen the 1993 film made of his earlier Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day. Reviews used words like “masterful”, “restrained”, “heart-rending”. It was a Merchant-Ivory production. About a butler and a repressed love affair in a country house before World War 2 – say no more.

Ishiguro, Japanese-born but UK-resident since the age of six, came to prominence as one of the first graduates of Malcolm Bradbury’s pioneering Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. His first two novels had Japanese settings. He was touted as one of the “Best Young British Novelists” by Granta. He’s got an OBE.

The back cover blurb of my copy of The Unconsoled (1995) says “Ryder, a renowned pianist, arrives in a Central European city he cannot identify for a concert he cannot remember agreeing to give. But then … he comes steadily to realise he is facing the most crucial performance of his life.”

The unnamed city, loss of memory – those familiar defamiliarising literary tricks once again. We might expect the protagonist of this first-person narrative to undergo some kind of existential crisis, to ponder the meaning or the meaninglessness of life, to meet with an epiphany of some kind. But this book is much, much weirder than that. And I hate to use the word “restrained” in other than a pejorative way, but in this case the restraint with which the dream-like narrative is handled is what makes it weird (and, indeed, truly dream-like).

Dreams do not commonly have especially fantastic content. Their strangeness usually derives from small displacements in the banalities of everyday life, rather than phantasmagoria – displacements that are taken to be normal within the course of the dream and only seem odd on waking. We converse with friends and family who happen to be dead; we venture out in the street naked. The narrator of The Unconsoled is roused from his bed and, with only the vaguest of briefings, persuaded to address a few words to a group of dinner-jacketed guests in a hotel restaurant. He stands up to speak. “I suddenly became aware that my dressing-gown was hanging open, displaying the entire naked front of my body.” But nobody appears to notice.

This is only his first evening – the narrative takes place over a period of three days – but already he has had a bewildering number of calls on his attention.  No sooner has he arrived by taxi at the hotel than the elderly porter, Gustav, is engaging him at great length on the subject of luggage-carrying techniques; a young apparatchik, Hilde Stratmann, informs him that “everyone” is honoured by his visit, which according to her will incorporate “important social functions” as well as a performance – while neglecting to actually give him a schedule; the hotel manager, Mr Hoffman, makes him promise to inspect two books of cuttings about himself which has been compiled over many years by his wife; and Mr Hoffman’s son, Stephan, a fledgling pianist who expects to be playing in the same concert that Thursday, asks if he will spare a few minutes to listen to him run through his piece.

In the hotel bar, Gustav accosts him again with a long-winded plea for him to intercede with his daughter, Sophie, from whom he is estranged. Ryder agrees to meet her and her young son Boris in the Hungarian Café that very evening. Bizarrely, it appears gradually over the course of the novel that there is some past history between the narrator and and the increasingly annoying Sophie, but he expresses little surprise at this.

Over the next couple of days, the narrator is beset from all sides by people beseeching favours. He accedes to all requests blankly, even when they interrupt compliance with the previous request. A “Mr Brodsky” is mentioned in hushed tones: another musician, who has had a scandalous past but is also meant to be giving a comeback performance on Thursday. He is taken to a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it seems to be a version starring Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. He is driven for miles in the middle of the night in his dressing gown to give the talk mentioned above; but it turns out to take place in the restaurant of the hotel he started out from. The city appears to be experiencing some kind of cultural impasse, which some expect him to resolve.

In one particularly strange sequence, when two journalists meet him for a photo-shoot in front of the “Sattler building” – which has a local iconic significance that is never explained, but is not good news for him – they talk about him disparagingly in his presence (“Schulz warned me what a difficult shit the guy is”), before turning to him and addressing him in flattering terms – and he reports the conversation blandly, without comment.

Over the course of this long novel, the events and characters interweave, but, though themes emerge, the threads are never quite tied. As the time of the concert approaches, Ryder becomes obsessed with the idea that his parents are about to arrive in the city (from England?) and witness his performance. He is anxious to be reassured that Mr Hoffman will look after them, but is generally completely passive in the face of increasingly bewildering events, including the inscrutable relationship with Sophie and the possibly autistic Boris.

The description of the concert itself is a surreally comic tour-de-force. Mr Brodsky is hampered in his performance, as his leg has been amputated following an accident – except that it is revealed that the leg that was cut off was actually a wooden leg anyway. Nobody seems any more interested in Ryder’s own performance, after all, than they were in his half-naked speech in the restaurant.

Only towards the end does Ryder express mild annoyance under the extreme pressures to which he has been subjected. “’The catering this morning has been appalling,’ I said coldly, before hurrying off.”

Characters die, are reconciled and then fall out of reconciliation again, come up against bitter disappointment; old schoolfriends of Ryder's suddenly appear for no reason, but nothing is revealed, and, as in Seinfeld, there is “no hugging, no learning”. The narrator ends up alone on a tram circling the city endlessly, evidently having forgotten his parents, as well as Sophie and Boris (who disappear from view), quite happy after all because a sumptuous buffet breakfast is being served on the vehicle. He has no insight into his condition and appears to have no interest in acquiring any insight.

The narration and dialogue are unrelentingly bland, and somehow, as in the Kubrick film Ryder is taken to see (albeit some alternate-universe version of it), this only serves to point up the extraordinary strangeness of the events of the narrative, as though they are taking place off-stage and far away. It's an affectless melodrama that dissipates like the dream it resembles, leaving only an unsettling lack of consolation.

Next episode – Richard Jefferies: After London, or Wild England

In : writing 

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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at http://www.kenedwardsonline.co.uk