The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro, a review by Maia Nikitina

When The Unconsoled first came out in 1995, it was met with a mixed but passionate reaction. Some called it a masterpiece while others  – the worst book ever written. That confusion among the critics is a characteristic of the novel as a whole, both in the reader’s mind as the story develops, and in the protagonist’s life itself. Those who love neatly tied ends and explanations would probably find this a challenging read. But this neatness is not what happens in real life, to real people, and the fact that the novel offers no Hollywood-style explanation is what makes it all the more powerful.
Ryder is an accomplished pianist who, it seems at first, has just arrived in a small town somewhere in Central Europe. He has a performance to give and as the evening of the recital approaches, it becomes clear that a lot depends on this performance. The townsfolk are obsessed with music in a comical, exaggerated way. To them, the evening is about finding a new talent upon which to place their hopes of becoming an extraordinary, art-focused town. Unfortunately for them, the only person they can think of, now that their previous idol has lost their confidence, is Mr Brodsky, an old miserable drunk who used to be an orchestra conductor in his home country some years ago. In their blindness, the town’s most proactive, led by the hotel manager Hoffman, completely ignore the real talent, a young pianist Stefan, who happens to be Hoffman’s son, and they focus instead on helping Brodsky to reconcile – but only as far as they feel is appropriate – with his wife Miss Collins. This reconciliation, they hope, would stop Brodsky from drinking and turn him into a viable candidate.
At the same time, for Ryder this recital would be the apogee of his career, and something that he hopes would so impress his parents – who until now have never seen him perform – that they would finally get back together.
The dream-like quality of the novel is brilliantly created through the various altered states that Ryder experiences as he prepares for the recital. There’s his strange ability to hear and see what goes on inside other people’s homes. There are the bizarre location switches when after a long drive out of town Ryder suddenly finds himself in the back room of the café that he had left an hour ago. There are the long ramblings of the people he meets that somehow become their thoughts as if Ryder was inside their minds.
At first, the reader waits for an explanation. Is Ryder dreaming? Is he in some kind of comatose state? Or maybe he is dying and looking back at his life? Does he have dementia or is this a surrealist book like Kafka’s Trial? There would be no answer to these questions so the reader has to pick the version they like best.
The theme of families and their little ‘understandings’, as one of the characters puts it, pierces through the novel. Sons and daughters devote their lives to pleasing their parents. Fathers and mothers behave in a cold, distant way, not realising what effect that has on their children. Husbands and wives don’t talk, relying instead on subtle signals to work out what the other is thinking. Some if it is bizarre and absurd and all of it is painfully real, despite the unreal feel of the book. There are two relationships in particular that evoke a sense of reality through the sheer stupidity of the characters’ behaviour. One is the understanding that Gustav, a hotel porter, has with his daughter Sophie. They never talk. They love each other very much but they only communicate through other people, mostly through Sophie’s son Boris. This understanding, which started when Sophie was a young girl, and which troubles them both immensely, only gets resolved as Gustav is dying.  The other one is that of Hoffman and his wife. Hoffman decided years ago that his wife was about to leave him. Now, over twenty years later, they are still together, and he is still convinced that it is about to happen, and that the only way to prevent it is to really impress his wife. Frustratingly, the couple never discuss their issue.
Ryder is constantly on the go, trying to fulfil the numerous requests and obligations that keep distracting him from his real goal, and this state of constant availability is very similar to how we live now, with our mobile phones, internet and social networking. As the book was written in mid-nineties, it is amazing to see how accurately Ishiguro predicted what our lives were to become. The Unconsoled is full of signs and metaphors. The symbolic meanings of the novel will keep coming back long after the reader has finished the book, and the realisations that stem from them will be as unusually lucid as can only be possible in dreams.
I’ve always done my best to avoid spoilers whenever I watch a new programme or read a new book. I like to discover things in my own time, and to be surprised when unexpected events happen in the book instead of waiting for something that I already know would happen.
So whatever made me go and search for reviews of the book I’m currently reading, The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, is beyond me. Maybe I just wanted to find out more about the author himself.
I’m right at the end of this brilliant book and I have been guessing like crazy what it is that is actually happening to the protagonist, Mr Ryder. Of course, now I have spotted in one of the articles about Ishiguro that Ryder has dementia and I have had to re-adjust all my ideas and possible scenarios. By the way, if you are halfway through this book and I have just spoilt it for you, sorry! There is still a chance that it isn’t true…

I’ll keep reading and will stay away from Google for the next few hours. I don’t think I’ll be able to go on with my day until I finish it now so I’m going to take the kids to our fitness club where they can swim and I can read. Keep checking this space for a review.

According to new research, three children out of ten don’t own any books. And I think that it is likely to get worse. I’m not a pessimist as anyone who knows me will tell you, but on this particular issue I think that we have to start being realistic. The same survey, conducted by the National Literacy Trust, says that four in ten boys, compared to three in ten girls, do not have a single book of their own.
Considering how much we depend on the written word – anything from Twitter to text messaging is now word-based – those children who read less would not only be at a disadvantage, they are likely to seriously lag behind as new technology continues to develop.
As a book lover, I would choose a good book over a TV programme every time but I can see the attraction TV holds for many people, with its already half chewed information nicely packaged and ready to be swallowed as we relax after a hard day at work. So we need to make time for books. We need to remember how different a reading experience can be when we have a real book to hold, smell, leaf through. When we develop a real attachment to a beautiful object called a book, with its illustrations, its front cover, its tea stain on one of the pages that reminds us of the day we read it while enjoying a cup of tea, we enhance the experience of reading. When we make time to sit and read quietly, we start to associate reading with positive emotions. And our children will follow.
Of course, those of us who worry about this are probably exactly the parents whose children already read and have their own books. And those who don’t are likely to be the kind of people who wouldn’t even notice that there is a problem because how would they come across it? And what we will soon have is a social divide that has on one side those who read, and can afford to read, and on the other side those who don’t. Those from the poorer background, with less opportunities to get a good education.
According to Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, it shouldn’t be up to schools to get children reading. But in the real world, if the parents don’t read, the only chance their children have of developing a love of books is precisely through schools. However difficult the task, schools would have to continue or even increase their efforts because those parents would not care.

How to people watch without getting caught

Admit it, sometimes listening to some couple’s private conversation or watching an old lady who screams randomly at the other bus passengers is too good to miss. It’s the kind of reality show that we can indulge in all the time and then feel all smug about it because we are not wasting our lives being couch potatoes but furthering our life education. Getting caught is not so much fun though, so here are some tips on not getting busted.

Carry a cover with you at all times
A book, a magazine, even a leaflet will do. If the subject of your mission looks at you, just pretend to read.  Of course you’ll have to be quick to lower your head but if you do get caught in the process, you can always compose an air of intellectual thought. Stare into your cup and move your lips a little, as if muttering wisdoms about the world.

Play the role of a writer
This is one of the best devices for people watching. You can get away with staring directly at almost anyone as long as you assume the vacant air of a writer deep in thought about their book and then jot down a few things in your notebook. The laptop doesn’t work as well in this case and would probably make you look like a nerdy freak.

Pretend to be blind
For the really determined and shameless the ultimate props would be a white stick and a large pair of sun glasses. Or you could try wearing sunglasses and facing another way while observing your subject with just your eyes. Keep switching sides though unless you want a headache afterwards.

Be yourself
Reflective surfaces and peripheral vision are good if you are a bit of a chicken and are prepared to sacrifice the image quality for that extra bit of safety. And the risk takers would do well staring openly and unashamedly. If you do get caught, smile and start a conversation. That always works. Almost.

First published on 
How to people watch without getting caught