Review: The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro

the unconsoledI’ve been finding it a little difficult to get back into writing reviews since my summer break.  It’s not been helped that in the last week I’ve taken delivery of a new  desktop computer and I’ve been enjoying setting it up just how I like it and then wasting time playing with it’s new features.  I’ve find so much pleasure in this I probably qualify as ace-nerd of Sussex.

I’ve been reading some great books though and hope to start reviewing in earnest next week. Just for today however, I’m going to write an article I’ve been intending to write for a long time about Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled.

I rarely read a book more than once – the number can probably be counted on the fingers of both hands (I’ve listed a few at the end of this article).  But The Unconsoled is one book which I have read six times and own in three different editions (2 paper and one e-book), and will probably read again at least another couple of times and which never seems to fade in my estimation.  This is The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, one of his least-regarded novels, but to me his best and one of the best books ever written.

As I wrote the last paragraph, I am aware that my views on The Unconsoled are unusual to say the least and are probably marking me out as a man of very peculiar tastes.  I can honestly say that although I read this book every two or three years, I find myself captivated by it every time I read it.  I find it hard to put it down, even though I know the story very well indeed and I know what’s coming throughout its 500+ pages.

When I start to read it, a feeling of complete absorption comes over me and I find myself entering Ishiguro’s strange creation as it meanders up and down innumerable byways.  It’s cyclic structure (the last chapter ends where the book began) which makes me feel like I’ve gone into a maze, but rather than feeling panicky, it makes me feel soporific and almost sedated. It’s a sort of Alice in Wonderland for grown-ups, with a dream-like, beguiling quality which draws the reader into the strange world contained in its pages.

Ishiguro came to prominence in 1989 with his remarkable novel, The Remains of the Day, so ably turned into a film by Merchant Ivory, starring Anthony Hopkins in the role of a trouble butler. The Unconsoled was Ishiguro’s next novel and was published in 1995.  Responses to the book were mixed and continue to be mixed to this day:  The current state of review on Amazon UK for example show that 34 people gave it five stars but 28 people gave it three stars or less (11 of the latter only gave it one star!).

The book opens with “Ryder” (we never learn his first name), “a man of internationally recognized genius” who is “not only the world’s finest living pianist, but perhaps the very greatest of the century”, arriving in an unnamed European city to lead a cultural festival which will culminate in his lecture and performance.  But this is no ordinary visit from a cultural icon.  The city is in some sort of crisis and Ryder’s visit is expected to lead to a resolution of the city’s difficulties and open up a new era of prosperity.

We never quite know what the crisis is caused by but as we read on we discover that the pivotal problem seems to be the city’s failure to understand the meaning of modern classical music, a topic which has somehow become a pivotal factor in the population’s unease and loss of confidence.  Evidently the city adopted as it’s cultural leader a musician called Christoff, but Christoff seems to have adopted a false interpretation of modern music and led the city into a backwater which ultimately made it a laughing stock.

Anonymous European city

Anonymous European city

Ryder apparently specialises in resolving crises like this and his international reputation means that the citizens of the city are alive with expectation as he arrives.  He is expected to have a number of meetings with various groups including Councillors, journalists, ordinary citizens (the Citizens’ Mutual Support Group).

A complex schedule has been drawn up by Miss Stratmann, who introduces a note of unease in her first meeting with Ryder by saying, “We were all starting to get a little concerned. Everyone waited this morning for as long as they could, but many had important appointments and had to go off one by one. So it falls to me, a humble employee of the Civic Arts Institute, to tell you how greatly honoured we all feel by your visit”.

Ryder begins to protest that he hasn’t yet seen a schedule but Miss Stratmann seems to become vague on this point and then the conversation is interrupted and Ryder is whisked off to his room by the hotel porter, the first of many many diversions which will ensure that he never quite makes it to any of his planned appointments. This feeling of being in the wrong place at the wrong time pervades the whole book and although it is something we may recognise from our own dreams, the book is too precisely written to be just an account of a prolonged dream.

Ishiguro’s writing has a touch of the surreal about it, which James Voorhies has described as a form of literature which seeks to “release the unbridled imagination of the subconscious”, a form of “poetry and prose (which) drew upon the private world of the mind, traditionally restricted by reason and societal limitations, to produce surprising, unexpected imagery”. (James Voorhies see www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/surr/hd_surr.htmh ).  This definition describes The Unconsoled perfectly, for the world Ryder inhabits, while based on reality seems to have none of the limitiations of time and geography which press so hard upon ourselves.

As we read on, we find that Ryder has in fact been to this city before, leaving behind him a little family who now begin to press their own needs upon him.  He seems to have a little boy and a wife who is constantly waiting for him to return from his travels so that they can build a home together.  Before long he is trying to balance the demands of the task set before him in the city and the domestic needs of these people who seem to have prior claim on his time.

Ryder keeps meeting up with people he knew from his past and listens to their stories.  Journalists way-lay him and haul him off on needless trips to be photographed in front of controversial monuments.  The city and it’s environs are themselves fluid and he finds himself speeding in fast cars through vast forests.  And all the time, the vital concert and lecture draw nearer without any time for the preparation which is so essential to its successful delivery.

Perhaps it all sounds a little too peculiar to you and as I said at the start my enthusiasm for this book probably marks me out as a man of strange tastes and I would not be surprised if most people I tell about this book would pick it up and reject it after a few pages for reasons similar to those many Amazon reviewers who gave it one or two stars only.  However, for me it’s a land-mark book and I sometimes wonder if the years will reveal it as Ishiguro’s greatest work – a quick Google of it showed that I’m not the only one who thinks along these lines.

Just to finish off this article here are a few of the other books I have read more than once and could well read again.  More than one of them has some similarities to The Unconsoled so I suppose this must be a type of book I am drawn to.

Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grosssmith,
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann,
Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom By the Sea,
The Shoe-tester of Frankfurt by Wilhelm Genazino,
Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig
Austerlitz by W G Sebald (and anything else by Sebald).

On another topic I apologise to anyone who has commented on my articles during the summer, that I have not been replying properly.  I intend to pull my socks up and reply properly from now on.

13 comments to Review: The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro

  • Fear not, Tom, you are not alone! Yes, it is weird and strange, but I was captivated by this book too when I read it a long time ago: it was my first Ishiguro, and I didn’t really know what to make of it, but it was, as you say, utterly absorbing.
    Lovely to have you back:)

  • Thanks for that Lisa – I’ve left a comment on yours

  • Kat

    Tom, your description of The Unconsoled, particularly its surreal elements, is very appealing. I like literary fiction, and I like science fiction, and this might fulfill both of my tastes. I very much enjoyed Never Let Me Go, an SFish book which not everyone liked.

    I reread books all the time, and am fascinated by your list. The Magic Mountain is on my rereading list this year, but with me it’s mostly Tolstoy: I reread both Anna Karenina and War and Peace and then wanted to go back and start over. I’ve read those two so many times that I have nothing to say about them anymore!

  • U really need to read Ishiguro soon. I suppose that I too have strange tastes in that this and some of the other works by this author sound very intriguing to me. The cycular nature of the story, the dreamlike subconscious feel of the the writing all make it sounds as if I would really like this.

  • I love that you have read this six times, that when you open it a feeling of total absorption comes over you. There are a few books in my life which induce the same quality, and they are such a joy to my heart. I’ve just recently seen the film Remains of The Day with Anthony Hopkins, but my reading of Ishiguro is sorely lacking even though I host the Japanese Literature Challenge every year! Now you have really intrigued me about Ishiguro, and I feel compelled to open this particular novel before my challenge ends in January.

    Have fun playing with your new computer! ;)

  • Hi Bellezza – well I suppose Ishiguro does qualify as Japanese because he was born in Japan although he moved with his parents to England when he was five and it now a naturalised Brit. I would be interested to see what you make of this book and I hope you find the time to look it up. Thanks for visiting

  • Hi Brian – thanks for visiting again. I really don’t deserve visits having paid little attention to book blogs during the summer months. I was way laid by various other things however which now seem to have come to and end.

  • Hi Kat. I admire you for managing to read so much Tolstoy – they are very long books indeed. Yes, Never Let Me Go was a good book – the film was excellent too.

  • You’re definitely not alone – this is probably my favourite of all his works (and I’ve read the lot…).

    My review, on the other hand, is just as surreal as the novel itself ;)
    http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/dinner-for-two-at-fusion-lit-bistro.html

  • Tony – thanks for sharing your link – I’m just about to go and read yours

  • oh I’m going to be a voice against this book I really didn’t get this book when I read it about a decade ago ,can’t now remember why just remember not liking it terribly but I’m not huge fan of his i like the short stories he did the other year ,all the best stu

  • Welcome back, Tom. I really enjoyed this book – it was such a surreal world that he created, with lots of logical inconsistencies that made you unsure exactly what was going on. Perhaps that’s what people didn’t like about it, but it worked for me. That said, I’m in no rush to read it again. I don’t tend to reread very often – always looking for the next great book!

  • I meant to comment on this when I saw it come through but I was in Germany at the time and didn’t manage to comment on any blogs! This is the only Ishiguro I haven’t read. I’ve loved them all but the poor reviews for this one – not to mention its length – have always put me off. And yet the subject matter appeals. I like the way Ishiguro gets into your heart/mind. I will read this one day … but I’m amazed at how many times you’ve read this. Your list of multiple reads is quite different to mine – which includes Jane Austen and a selection of other classics, Jim Crace’s Being dead, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Camus’ The plague, among others.

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