Seeing Beyond the Veneer
There is an understated beauty in Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing that is quite difficult to describe. The winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Literature and of the 1989 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s mastery of the art of writing is quite established. With every work he publishes, he brandishes it with a different magic that distinguishes one from the other. The diversity of his repertoire is a breathtaking spectacle that sweeps the readers off their feet.
It is this diversity that was in display again in his sixth published novel, The Unconsoled. It recounts the experiences of a virtuoso and celebrated pianist simply identified as Mr. Ryder descended on an unnamed European city. His arrival to the city stirred the general interest of the city’s denizens. He was there just to perform but as soon as he settled down, he found himself surrounded by the locals, each requesting for a small favor which turns out to be an egregious intrusion into his time.
“People need me. I arrive in a place and find terrible problems, and people are so grateful I’ve come,” Ryder’s overwhelming sense of mission made him incapable of refusing the locals’ “small” favors. Whilst in the midst of accomplishing these favors, Ryder was inevitably dragged into the heart of the city’s affairs, the biggest of which stemmed from the city’s frustrations with its inability to cultivate a musical artist that is at par with Ryder’s capabilities. But this is just one of many that plagued the city, catapulting Ryder into an uncharted territory, turning what is supposed to be a concert performance into a tumultuous tide of events.
“Silence is just as likely to indicate the most profound ideas forming, the deepest energies being summoned.” ~ Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
Related mostly by Ryder, The Unconsoled is a labyrinthine narrative that is both sweeping and perplexing. Ryder’s various errands exposes the sensibilities of a small city that is often times out of touch with the tides of reality. In three days, Ryder was a silent witness to a perpetual sequence of mysterious events, old wounds and vicious rivalries, none of which make sense to him, or even to the reader. There was a lack of general context that renders an incredulity.
The eerie unpredictability rendered a surrealistic, postmodern landscape. This penumbral landscape carries with it an eccentric time sequence that is almost dream-like in quality. The fleeting dream-like sequences render the narrative murky. Several events defy logic and old friends from the past just sprout out of nowhere. There is a blatant disregard to contexts that can easily cast the reader out of his comfort zone.
In stark dichotomy to the forefront of a concert stage, much of the events in the story happen backstage. The readers are back and forth between the veneer that people show to the general public and to their inner and deeper selves, their aches, sorrows and pains that remain incognito from the public’s prying eyes and ears. The novel is populated with annoying and adamant characters who expect a famous individual to do work for them because the famous person is perceived to be “more influential”. Ryder is an unsuspecting audience in this morose tales that have swept the city’s denizens, even its most prominent ones.
Ryder is an inconsistent, and often times an impatient, narrator. However, his reactions are relatable. When he began to crystallize at the end of the narrative, his sensibilities surface and the readers begin to see that he is also susceptible to pressure; he has private pains that he is unable to confess to anyone. His eagerness to please made him honor little obligations. His tendency for self-suppression made him miss out on honoring his bigger obligations.
“I have this feeling, that all it will take will be one moment, even a tiny moment, provided it’s the correct one. Like a cord suddenly snapping and a thick curtain dropping to the floor to reveal a whole new world, a world full of sunlight and warmth.” ~ Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
The locals of the city are the proverbial “unconsoled”. When the veneer is removed, their lives begin mirror and imitate one another in an intriguing manner. They also have a vehement desire to recapture a past glory, which, unfortunately, they never can because they are too absorbed by their own ideas of what greatness is. This touch of vanity renders them unable to recognize what greatness really is. The novel’s farcical and even satirical tone translates this so well.
The novel was relentless in its fragmentation and disassociation. The relentless assembling and dissembling makes The Unconsoled a challenging book to unravel. It does take a while to get into the thick of things. But once the reader gets a hang of the inconsistencies and complexities, the narrative begins to flow, its underlying surface, and the novel’s understated beauty flourishes in the typical Ishiguro manner that one is accustomed to.
The Unconsoled is, to say the least, a literary maze and suffice it to say that it needs a handful of interpretation. Which gets us to the heart of this profound book – disconnection and miscommunication. The failure of communication and the stifling of emotional responses were clearly embedded at every turn of the narrative. Each of the primary character speak a language that is different from one another. As a result, everyone ends up unheard, try as Ryder might in connecting these tiny dots.
This miscommunication was depicted in a plethora of incidents. Insensitive and self-absorbed parents cause irreversible wounds to their children. There is an irony in the public who believe they understand art when, in fact, they do not. The culturally obsessed denizens were all waiting for a prodigy to uplift their waning spirits but they were too blind to see it even if it was already in their midst. They rebuff talent when it doesn’t fit their expectation. It was something that Ryder himself has realized but stifled to express in the end.
“One should not, in any case, attempt to make a virtue out of one’s limitations.” ~ Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
“A sprawling, almost indecipherable 500-page work”
When it was initially published, many literary pundits were critical of The Unconsoled. It didn’t receive the positive reception that Ishiguro’s prior works has received from the reading public. Indecipherable and baffling were just two of the words used to describe this sprawling narrative. However, as time took its due course, the reading public begun appreciating the complexities of The Unconsoled’s unfamiliar narrative. It is now highly regarded as one of Ishiguro’s finer works.
It is this perplexing complexity that sweeps the reader at the onset, especially if it is his first time reading a work by Ishiguro. Even though it is first time, it can be inferred that The Unconsoled is a step away from Ishiguro’s usual nuanced writing. But it is this step away from the established norms that makes this novel stand out. Ishiguro’s gumption to explore beyond what everyone believes he can offer. It is a testament to his fervent desire to quality and thought-provoking narratives.
Again, Kazuo Ishiguro didn’t fail to fascinate me. Of his six works, I’ve read, this is perhaps the most challenging and most difficult one, not only because of its length but also because of its complexity. It did take me some time to measure up to the story because of its strange curves and Ryder feels ephemeral at countless times. But it is this wonderful, even though strange, mix that makes The Unconsoled an amazing literary journey.
Furthermore, it showcased a different dimension of Ishiguro’s repertoire. He can play with nostalgia. He can also do fantasy and dystopia. With The Unconsoled, he showed that he can incorporate postmodernism into his growing tome. This diversity and versatility is fascinating, even breathtaking, to witness.
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: 2017
Number of Pages: 535
From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go comes an audacious novel that is at once a gripping psychological mystery, a wicked satire of the cult of art, and a poignant character study of a man whose public life has accelerated beyond control.
The setting is a Central European city where a renowned pianist has come to give the most important performance of his life. Instead, he finds himself diverted by a series of cryptic and infuriating errands that nevertheless provide him with vital clues to his own past. In The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro creates a work that is itself a virtuoso performance, deeply strange, hauntingly familiar, and resonant with humanity and wit.
About the Author
To learn more about Kazuo Ishiguro, click here.