The Unconsoled, Formal Review

It feels not quite right to add The Unconsoled to the Japanese Lit Challenge #13. Ishiguro has talked himself about his Japaneseness, 🙂 It may be that we see it in him because he was born in Japan to Japanese parents, and lived there until the age of 6 when the family moved to Britain.

Jeffrey Eugenides, the author of The Virgin Suicides, comments on how people have seen in it that tragedy chorus element prompted most likely by his Greek last name.

Bellezza, the host of the challenge, calls the shots, and she considers it a suitable candidate for Japanese Literature. I join to say that, despite this particular Ishiguro not being set in Japan or having Japanese people in it, it surely shares some of what we have come to identify in the collective as Japanese lit traits.

I’m not writing a conventional review, but just my thoughts on the book and recurrent themes in Ishiguro. But nothing extensive, guys, I’m not an expert, I’m just a fan.

I listened to the first half of the book, and I read the second half. The audio set a good tone for this book, and got me far ahead in it. That may have made the book feel shorter. Length is a challenge. Mood is a challenge. Attention is a bit of a challenge. You have to allow yourself to inhabit Ryder’s world and his mind. But once you pick up the rhythm, and let go of control, -the urge to know what’s going on-, it’s a pleasure to read. It lulls you, amuses you, saddens you, all of this in a kind and exquisite way. Some moments can come to a crescendo, but Isiguro is never violent or in your face.

Maybe that’s what’s so different to the more straightforward western books, it’s the indecisiveness of the characters, their repression, their constant second guessing as to what certain events, gestures, or words meant, -the spoken, and the unspoken-.

I always feel as if there’s something obvious, an elephant in the room, but something nobody dares to talk about in an open manner. Maybe that’s what Ishiguro does so well. Talking about things, making you feel things, without mentioning them.

Nothing much happens in terms of a plot moving towards an end. Knowing that, you’ll be free to enjoy and be rewarded to meet the people in this book. A hotel bellhop, a drunken pianist, Ryder’s concert organizer, a town driver now fallen from grace, the main character, Mr. Ryder, a renowned concert pianist supposed to give a speech and a performance, Boris, the young porter’s grandson, Sophie, the porter’s daughter, the drunken pianist’s mistress, the people of the town, the hotel manager, the manager’s wife and adult son, a few townspeople and some of Ryder’s childhood friends.

Duty versus personal life. Childhood’s innocence and the role success plays in one’s life and the life of our parents and spouses. I’m not sure if I should attribute this to the eastern Asian cultures, but there’s that expectation parents have in this book for their children to be successful pianists. Ishiguro writes about these parental expectations very well.

And marriages. When marriage goes wrong, the children of divorced parents question their role, and feel it’s their fault, or never quite know what’s going on in the life of their parents, though they know. Politics and work too. When our decisions were on the ‘wrong side’ of conflicts, our personal and professional lives become this big failure. But his characters, like real people, were dutiful, responsible, committed, and they look back and forth, to the past and the present, trying to make sense of their life as individuals and in the context of their community roles.

Town and community politics, and the arts. Are they talking about art or something else? I always have the feeling that Ishiguro is talking about war and sides, while his characters don’t acknowledge any upfront participation. The town is unknown. It feels as a country under a dictatorship, but it’s hard to know for sure.

There’s an important instance in which Ryder is drawn to a photo session, and by accident, he ends up being photographed in front of a town’s building and a sculpture. Later on, Ryder notices that his pictures in the paper show him with an arm raised, his hand in a fist, and a triumphant gesture he doesn’t recognize as his own intention at the time of the pictures. He is aghast looking at the negative reaction others display when they look at his pictures on the paper. However, proper Ishiguro, we never know for sure if they are upset with him because of this.

Sometimes it reminds me, this atmosphere, to Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, and even to Kafka’s Trial. But Ishiguro stays more on the side of normalcy and reality, and his pen is more delicate, his sentences not ornamented. The beauty comes from the humility. There’s a powerful but simple lack of judgments. I never thought about this until an article remarked on how we can know about Ryder’s character obliquely, by his actions and the reactions of those around him.

When I read The Makioka Sisters, there’s the absence of some words or the way things are told, that shouts Japanese. The Unconsoled, I don’t know, it’s not fully what you’d expect from any realist author, but it’s not stream of conscience, nor magic realism. It may not be Japanese, but then it’s Ishiguro, someone with a particular style, who may have left us a few books that seem different but that are very similar and recurrent in their themes.

You see, with Ishiguro, there’s always the issue, they are going to address it, or talk about it, but life ends up being this uncertain and undefined set of stressful activities that result in a life that one can’t even explain to oneself. See for yourselves:

‘Mr Pedersen, you’ve been exceedingly polite. But let me assure you, whenever the possibility arises that I’ve made an error of judgement, I’m not one to turn and hide from it. In any case, sir, this is something a person in my position has to come to terms with. That’s to say, during the course of any one day I’ll be called upon to make many important decisions, and the truth is, the most I can do is to weigh up the evidence available at the time as best I can and forge on. Sometimes, inevitably, yes, I’ll be guilty of miscalculation. page 375.

There’s moments when things seem to make perfect and full sense, followed by others that are dreamlike and surreal. Ryder is very stressed. One feels that stress. I’ve read that this is a book about the experience of being stressed. It’s true. It’s tiring, Ryder needs to take care of this event night, -a concert, a recital, a ‘trial‘?- Not only can’t he make it to the important moments in life, he has trouble identifying which are those crucial events. While they don’t leave him alone to concentrate in his tasks, he’s not even that clear about what those tasks are.

The book is a concatenation of events that flow from one to the other. If we stop the flow and isolate them, they are bizarre, but Ishiguro weaves like Arachne, making The Unconsoled have outstanding coherence and beauty.

I always think that, if we knew what’s in people’s minds, many exchanges we have with others would be more wholesome and less perplexing or hurtful. Ishiguro takes all this one step further and shows us how, in life, we not only don’t know the other, but we don’t know ourselves. Add another layer, we don’t know who we are and what’s going on in the present, and we don’t know who we were or what ensued in the past.

At another important instance, I forgot if Ryder tells Boris, -who we don’t know for sure but seems to be his son-, that he’s going to travel, because he hasn’t had that performance that will make him as a musician. Until then, any of those trips could be the decisive one after which he’ll be able to settle, be secure financially, and enjoy family. However, it seems that many or all in the book, live with those moments never coming, or passing them by.

This is the book of the lives of people, and what they all do, how unconsoled they all are, while they are waiting for what they esteem their true life to commence, trying to grab a second chance at life, or watching their lives end.

By the last third of the book, -my copy has 535 compact pages-, the pace quickened, and so did my interest. I had a momentary excitement, thinking that I’d arrive at a conclusion, but deep down there, I knew Ishiguro won’t give us a crystal clear solution to any of the multiple questions the book awakens.

Let’s talk about endings. Another of the so called Japanese lit traits, it’s that of an inconclusive ending. By the last 20 pages, that momentary feeling of solving many of the book questions, gave way to the also familiar recognition that I am going to spend weeks mulling over what I have just read. Somehow, if I start it over, I could read the book again this time with a gained understanding of it. But I need to leave some time between this and next reading.

As I am preparing for the One Hundred Years of Solitude read along, I appreciate how Marquez invented a new genre to tell what he had to tell, or the story begat that new form and format, it’s fair to say that Ishiguro has crafted what I believe is his sui generis style, something in between realism and stream of consciousness.

Mr Ryder ends his few days in that unknown town similarly to how he started. He is moving on to his next engagement, and little it’s known on how he arrived to that first one.

Evocative, existing in that foggy space between awaken and dreaming or reminiscing, pregnant with allusions and deprived of explanations, a collage of time, the book is nostalgic, sad and tender. It can be very dramatic at times, and humorous too, like a painting by Magritte.

15 thoughts on “The Unconsoled, Formal Review

  1. Pingback: Homage to Ishiguro, #just.ordered.the.missing.titles | Silvia Cachia

  2. Ishiguro’s Unconsoled I’d read many years ago. At that time I found it hard to grasp exactly what he was getting at. But then again, with him, he just might not have one single interpretation that he wanted his readers to ‘get’. I’ve enjoyed most of his works.

    Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of my all time faves. I’d written a book review in 2009 (!) and a review of the movie adaptation. (Link in the post) Enjoy your posts.

  3. Brona, I hope that if you get to read this book, it works for you. To me, he is the master at writing uncertainty, and one of the few who write about characters who are not starting in life, but trying to make sense of it. I also appreciate how he included childhood and parents, grandparents and their children and grandchildren. He truly appeals to us, older readers.

  4. “I always think that, if we knew what’s in people’s minds, many exchanges we have with others would be more wholesome and less perplexing or hurtful. Ishiguro takes all this one step further and shows us how, in life, we not only don’t know the other, but we don’t know ourselves. Add another layer, we don’t know who we are and what’s going on in the present, and we don’t know who we were or what ensued in the past.“
    I was most likely always going to read this one day, but your paragraph has bumped it up to the VERY SOON pile. Great review.

  5. Pingback: Ongoing Reading Log | Silvia Cachia

  6. Pingback: One Hundred Years of Solitude Intro to Read Along | Silvia Cachia

  7. I’ve only read The Remains of the Day but really must extend my knowldege of Ishiguro. Thanks for your review – an encouragement to seek out more of his books soon…

  8. Thanks for being my technical person with the pictures. I’ll look into it and try to fix it.

    You are right. This book merits a physical book read. Though the audio was high quality. If listened to at the normal speed, the narrator speaks at a good speed, and enunciates well.

  9. Oh, Silvia, you write of Japanese literature and Ishiguro so beautifully! I loved reading your thoughts on this book, and now you’ve made me want to read it again. I kept looking for a solution, a definite conclusion, in while I was reading the book. Until around the middle, when I realized I was in for the journey not the destination. You capture the essence of Japanese literature so well. It’s the mood, the atmosphere, the things that are not said more than the things that are. It’s the way that the reader thinks about what he has read long after the book is finished. It’s the way that nothing is definite, or even completely comprehensible, even in life.
    Thank you.

  10. Thanks for your wonderful review, I really need to read it!
    I love audiobooks and listen to a lot of them, but somehow, I feel like for literary fiction of this quality, I miss something if I don’t read them.
    NB: your first 2 pictures don’t show

  11. ‘The book is a concatenation of events that flow from one to the other. If we stop the flow and isolate them, they are bizarre, but Ishiguro weaves like Arachne, making The Unconsoled have outstanding coherence and beauty.’ So true – I think this explains my attachment to this book even though I would have thought its style not at all to my taste.

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