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.