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Portratit by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
Essays on KAZUO ISHIGURO in
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
The Desperado Age: British Literature at the Start of the Third Millennium, Bucharest University Press, 2004
© Lidia Vianu
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954; he came to England when he was five years old and now lives in London. His first four novels are: A Pale View of Hills (1982), An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Remains of the Day (1989) and The Unconsoled (1995).
The Remains of the Day is an enthralling novel that has to be read twice. The web of words is too complicated to penetrate at first sight, and emotion is very hard to unveil. Once you find out it exists, you retrace your steps, and point the finger questioningly at the sore spots.
On the one hand, the book is an essay on the idea of a ‘great’ butler: the person in question, we are told, should be characterized by dignity above all, and should be attached to a distinguished employer, who in this case is Lord Darlington, a key figure – or so the butler thinks – for the destiny of humanity.
The butler – whose only name seems to be Stevens, as nobody uses his first name – must have been born a butler. He has no personal belongings or wishes other than to serve his master. He has no childhood memories that he sees fit to mention, and he gives up life for the sake of his profession, in which he is indeed unsurpassed. His dissertation on how to be unsurpassed is interspersed with a limited range of memories, incidents and two major feelings, which remain forever unuttered: love for his master and love for the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. Within the space of the novel, Lord Darlington dies – he is already dead when the story, Stevens’ motoring trip, begins – and Miss Kenton is already Mrs. Benn. What is left of the butler’s great expectations is the remains of the day.
Apparently unemotional and perfectly matter-of-fact, the story Stevens tells stresses decency and restraint, major ways of life and utmost boundaries to our possible desire of trespassing into the realm of the main character’s sensibility, even deeper psychology. The whole novel is built upon the rock of a huge understatement. Stevens seems arrested in the hieratic posture of Japanese art. Movement of any kind is banned to the surface, although we ultimately become very much aware that a stream of incandescent lava flows passionately underground, like a river which strats from the sun, which rages till the sun is exhausted into a mere sunset – and then we can at last catch a glimpse of what it might have been.
The ‘might have been’ is a mood characteristic of T.S. Eliot’s sensibility, and so is Stevens’ unwillingness to admit he is and why he is so deeply unhappy, to talk about himself. As an objective correlative – though Eliot himself discarded the term in later life, the day is spent as a butler, and in the evening, which is stated at the very end of the book to be the ‘best part of the day,’ the butler turns into a might-have-been prince, whose beloved has grown old, apart and, as a matter of fact, has left the scenario altogether.
The novel starts with the announcement in the first person, ‘the expedition has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.’ The first character mentioned is Mr. Farraday, the new American owner of Darlington Hall. Unlike Henry James’ Americans, blinded by the lights of Europe before the two world wars, Ishiguro’s American is mastered by a downright complex of superiority. The story begins in 1956. Two wars have changed England and the rest of the continent. Mr. Farraday has bought Darlington Hall, hoping it would turn out to be the ‘real thing,’ and Stevens the butler comes, as somebody says on the last pages, as ‘part of the package.’
Mr. Farraday is the typical rich, free American, who can travel any time, anywhere, and who cannot, does not even know how to take Darlington Hall seriously. He can merely ignore Stevens when the latter tells him,
‘It has been my privilege to see the best of England over the years, sir, within these very walls.’
The only thing he can think of, in his desire to please the butler, is to urge him to go on a motoring trip and see the country. Stevens offers himself a ‘professional’ reason for the trip, namely to attempt persuading Miss Kenton to come back as housekeeper of Darlington Hall. One of her very few letters he has just received says that she has left her husband, is very miserable and remembers Darlington Hall nostalgically. Stevens has this letter deeply engraved in his memory when he decides to take his trip. All along it, we shall have to find out whether the reason he so emphatically stresses – to find a better way of running the house and please his employer – is the real one, and it turns out at the very end that it is not by a long shot.
The novel is written in the first person: the butler speaks, but he is a totally unreliable narrator, and we get to know nothing for sure about anything. His eyes are distorting mirrors, and we are offered the facade, while we have to dig deeply beyond the words uttered by Stevens in order to get to the spicy story, to emotion, to some human reaction. The story uses the Japanese imposed fixity as a main device. It is a device to be added to the gallery of Desperado tricks, although the books of Kazuo Ishiguro defy any classification and mainly aim at being good novels – which they really are.
In a way the story of Darlington Hall can be seen as a process of decay, from a staff of seventeen (even twenty-eight formerly) to a mere four servants; from political, ‘off the record’ conferences, and decisions behind the visible political scenes, to informal visits of other American guests of dubious taste. Above everything, from the deeply encoded exchange of words between a master and a butler who greatly valued each other, to the art of ‘bantering,’ as Stevens very earnestly calls it. Mr. Farraday speaks his mind and is very fond of straightforward jokes, which are a great shock to Stevens. As a matter of fact, Stevens’ attitude throughout the novel is one of mild and irrevocable shock.
As far as the timing of the story is concerned, it begins some three years after Lord Darlington’s death, some twenty years after Miss Kenton left for Cornwall with her husband in 1936. The reason for the story – which the butler keeps repeating over and over again, to the extent of making us very suspicious as to his real meaning – is to provide the Hall with an appropriate housekeeper, who seems to be available again. The housekeeper of his younger years, when she was young, too, and when important things were deliberately left unuttered.
Mr. Farraday listens to Stevens’ explanation and goes straight to the heart of the matter: he exclaims,
‘My, my, Stevens. A lady-friend. And at your age.’
Most embarrassing, Stevens recollects, and so very much unlike Lord Darlington. But he is lenient when he says to himself,
‘I do not mean to imply anything derogatory about Mr. Farraday; he is, after all, an American gentleman and his ways are often very different.’
So, Mr. Farraday goes on with his bantering:
‘I’d never have figured you for such a lady’s man, Stevens.’
The butler meditates that this bantering is just a sign of good, friendly understanding, just like the understatement from of old. He feels rather unsure as to how he should respond, he is shocked and bewildered. He is very worried about his professional service suffering from his inability to adapt to a new way of seeing life. His whole life he has been training himself to say the right thing, to broaden his vocabulary by reading particularly to the purpose of answering his master or the latter’s guests. His language had a certain correctness about it, parading a certain discretion, a secrecy of the mind. He was used to doing the right and expected thing, and speak the same. Stevens talks about himself, with his correct reactions and colourless language as about the puppet of Darlington Hall, but this ridiculous impression is strongly contradicted by the latent substance of the text. In his case, we might say: Speak, and I shall know who you are not.
The description of the present, of the American setting the standards for a thoroughly well bred English butler, is made with secret but robust irony. Stevens confesses to himself:
‘...this business of bantering is not a duty I feel I can ever discharge with enthusiasm.’
The time when poets like Pound and Eliot fled America for fear of stifling there is long gone. There is no danger that Kazuo Ishiguro’s American will defect to Europe; on the contrary, he can hardly wait to go back to his American home. Henry James’ set of values is dead.
The book begins with the butler’s discontent at having to replace understatement by gross jokes, but ends with his decision that times are changing and he will do it. The last words of the novel are:
‘I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer’s return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him.’
All through his motoring trip to the place of destination, the place where he can see Miss Kenton again, and ascertain for himself whether she will come back to him, as a housekeeper, of course, Stevens combines his features carefully, like a Japanese. He could be said to turn slowly into a butler with Japanese traditions of composing his being.
Stevens constantly refers to his visit to Miss Kenton as a mere ‘passing by.’ It is the understatement of the book, the major one, and it is in fact Ishiguro’s main sword. The butler’s thoughts are only hinted at, yet, once this convention of not telling the bantering truth is understood, they become pretty clear, and we no longer feel outsiders – we rather feel the privileged sharers of private information. The novel becomes at last a space of intimacy with the hero, an incision into his inner life, deeper than the usual psychology outlined by most Desperado novels. But the beginning of this change is only the end of the novel, so we feel compelled to read it again and take in whatever must have escaped our understanding the first time round. With Ishiguro, reading twice is absolutely compulsive.
The unusual – both accepting the necessity of bantering, and his confession to having wasted his love for Miss Kenton – breaks into the Japanese fixity of the butler’s rigid rules of yore, and smashes his small world. America sends a messenger to ‘pay for gas’ and broaden his horizon with a truth that, of old, lay beyond the multiple intellectual mirrors of Darlington Hall. These mirrors are covered and actually become useless. One way of life is dead. His mind was his world, his master was his God. But a new world has been discovered, God was pushed farther and farther away, by the very fact that he has become so very accessible. Stevens feels he floats in an unreal cloud of debris. Reality becomes unreality or fairy-tale, and the new truth is out there, requesting Stevens to discover it. Unfortunately, he is too tired for that, and the end of the book drops the curtain over centuries of lordly days. We are merely faced with the remains of a day, of the day.
The beginning of the butler’s motoring trip is like a belated escape from his confined youth. For the first time in his life, Stevens goes beyond all his older limits, into a ‘wilderness.’ He experiences a thrill of the unknown, mixed with fear and guilt; Darlington Hall is left empty for the first time in a century, or even since it was built. An age is dead, and its butler is overwhelmed with uncertainty; he no longer feels safe, as if he had lost his foothold. He has indeed lost something very precious: that confined youth he can never and would never change.
Stevens has had three major experiences at Darlington Hall: his father (who was his model and whom he loved deeply, although they hardly communicated at all – few of Ishiguro’s characters actually manage to communicate with others) died, he worked as a ‘great’ butler, and fell in love with Miss Kenton (which he never even hinted at). His fourth major experience is spent away from Darlington Hall, and it is his motoring trip. He inspects everything with apprehension, rather than excitement caused by novelty. Summer and autumn mix in him. Life is weak now. There seems to be nothing left – in the end not even the expectation of Miss Kenton, who does not really want to leave her family, anyway. Love seems to have been lost all the way, for his father, for the housekeeper, for his master. Apprehension is the butler’s defining mood, although he tries really hard to comply with his new status.
As he drives along, Stevens remembers and thinks back and forth. He does everything with what he deems to be restraint and calmness. He finds these two very appropriate to his status. Do they make him a ‘great’ individual, as well as a ‘great’ butler? Owing to them, he becomes the hidden hero, a monument of deviousness (unreliable narration), as opposed to the demonstrativeness (realism) of traditional characters.
This dumb hero, who commands a great deal of respect, sometimes addresses the reader directly, like the heroes of Julian Barnes or sometimes even Fowles: ‘you may well guess...’ he says, with wilful humility, which immediately makes room for that halo of mystery, called by him ‘dignity,’ which he cannot do without. Indeed, all we can do is guess, but the choices are not endless, as in Henry James. We find out the one truth, or we do not. Ishiguro writes novels in which ambiguity only has two ends: you break its spell, or you are confused by it.
Stevens himself defines his situation by stating that great butlers ‘inhabit their professional role.’ His father was like that before him. His elder brother Leonard was killed during the Southern African War, but Stevens’ father was able to master his resentment and be the best of companions to the General who actually led him to death. This is considered by Stevens as his father’s greatest feat. The same as the ideal situation (it is by no means told as a joke) when a butler finds a tiger under the dining room table and comes to whisper in his master’s ear – without allowing anyone to be alarmed or showing any discomfort himself – that he would like to use the gun, which the master approves by a nod. Such butlers, Stevens muses, ‘only truly exist in England.’
The butler’s trip towards hope for lost youth lasts six days. On the second day he remembers something similar to the butler with the tiger, when nobody is inconvenienced due to the butler’s greatness. He remembers his father’s death, which occurred precisely during a very important unofficial conference at Darlington Hall, in 1923. The death is also connected with Miss Kenton, since she was the one to witness it, as Stevens was extremely busy when his father had a stroke. While Lord Darlington and the envoys of France, Germany, America were trying to alleviate the fate of Germany, the butler’s father lived his last hours in the presence of total strangers. His son saw to his duties, stating that this was what his father would have wanted him to do, which is most probably correct. What was left of this sorrowful situation was a bond between Stevens and Miss Kenton. The bond could have been strengthened when Miss Kenton herself received the news of her aunt’s death, but Stevens inhabits his role too well to get sentimental, so he did not even offer his condolences, which memory torments him to the present day of the story. A conference and a death, this is, in a nutshell, what happens in Ishiguro’s novel. The heap of feelings that remain unuttered, of incidents adjacent to the major plot, is what places the novel inside the area of Desperado literature. The medley we are crossing, the disorder of memories, in spite of their logical appearance, the feeling of confusion pending, all these are extremely contemporary and characteristic of our outlook after two world wars.
In a way, although the butler is bound to his small room and his duties, he has extraordinary inner vistas. He lives in a world of the mind, which encompasses a lot more than his master’s pro-German, almost Nazi inclinations at times. He lives in a tragic world, where everything is denied and turns into pain: love for his father, love for the housekeeper, love of any kind. The farthest he can go is respect, and the understatement of respect is emotion, but what kind of emotion we have to decode and measure ourselves. The author refuses to share his soul, until the very last few pages, when it is too late for the hero to do anything about the terrible waste, anyway.
March 1923 was the moment when, because of the international conference at Darlington Hall, accompanied by his father’s death, Stevens considered that he had ‘come of age as a butler.’ It is one of the turning points of the novel, the second being the moment of his inertness when Miss Kenton announced she was getting married, and he let her go. ‘What a waste,’ he thinks, while hoping that she will come back. Only, the waste is not where he places it, as it seems, and the last pages make that very clear. The waste is his whole life, and he is left with mere remains of it.
Because of the butler’s dumb respect and restraint when he talks to us, the presence of reality is minimized, as if he were trying to keep us unalarmed, too, like the guests in the story with the tiger. Yet, we cannot fail to notice that we are only offered an ‘illusion of absence’ of the hero’s psychology. Stevens explains that it is essential to good waiting to strike a balance between efficiency and the illusion of absence. The same thing seems to be essential to the novelist Ishiguro, who watches us carefully as we reveal his unuttered truths, creating an illusion of the author’s absence. Actually, the author is very efficient, very much there, bathing all his thoughts in all pervading irony.
The whole book is a coexistence of duty and agony, of earnestness and endless irony. The depersonalized style which approximates the butler’s real way of thinking and addressing strangers, his cautious deviousness, makes the pain increasingly more poignant, until it becomes unbearable, and the butler weeps. He weeps just like Miss Kenton before leaving him, when he knew she was weeping and could not bring himself to change anything. A remarkable being enclosed in a cell, Stevens has wasted a life of love and is left with hollow prospects and piercing memories.
The web of this novel is intricate to the utmost, mainly because it says too little, not too much. The butler with a tiger, identified with Stevens with his father’s death, remembers history and the 1923 conference with an extraordinary sense of triumph, he says. Yet, his lace-like sensibility weaves a soft silk of emotions around us, and we cannot believe him. We fail to believe that his profession comes before his love, for his father, for Miss Kenton. We fail to believe that History can come before the slightest emotion at all. He protects Lord Darlington’s memory – we can easily understand, although Stevens never says so, that the lord is accused of Nazi sympathies and pro-German activities – and makes us realize the subtlety of the man. That subtlety is also Stevens’, and even tenfold. He sympathizes with each and every character, bearing the burden of his sensibility without ever disclosing it to anyone, without ever sharing it.
The topic of this taciturn novel is the butler versus history and the butler versus his own soul. We infer all along, but only at the end can we know for certain. Unlike Henry James, though, Ishiguro does offer us the feeling that we have unravelled the right image. History is nothing on the whole, as compared to the least string of emotion. The day was wasted in the wrong way. What can the butler do with its remains?
The major taste left by this very usual story, told in a very unusual way, is one of poignant tenderness. Stevens weeps inside many times. He weeps when his father dies saying,
‘I hope I have been a good father to you.’
He weeps when Miss Kenton asks if she can close his dead father’s eyes, considering he is too busy to go to the latter’s room for the moment. The irony is here devastating. He weeps when Lord Darlington is replaced by the bantering Mr. Farraday, who does not know a thing about secrecy and deviousness. He weeps when Miss Kenton is deeply pierced by his refusal to keep her to himself. And, last but not least, he weeps for himself, for his own lost day, at the end of the book, after Miss Kenton has confessed her love for him, which was so strong that it has never been forgotten. Everything could have been different, but then the formidable Stevens would not have been the same. He chose an austere way of life, the same as Ishiguro chooses an austere style for his novel. It is an austerity that hides the tenderness, but this tenderness exhales a warmth of heart that no prohibition in the world, or in literature can extinguish. The Remains of the Day is a secret exposed. In it literature is challenged by silence, and yet manages to convey.
An Artist of the Floating World, published in 1986, is Ishiguro’s second novel. It anticipates part of the subject matter of The Remains of the Day, namely the political side, only here we find America bossing defeated Japan, while there America patted an ally – England. The artist of the floating world is Masuji Ono, a retired painter of formidable reputation – or so he wants to think – during the militarist years leading to the second World War and Japan’s utter change of politics, following its disaster. The floating world is the world of nightly pleasures, which Ono’s master – the painter Mori-san – teaches him to paint; it is the world of evanescent beauty, the core of emotion, but Ono finds his beauty elsewhere. He leaves his master and the floating world, joining those who between the wars were trying to help Japan out of the crisis. He looks at the real world, initiated into the realm of squalid poverty by his fellow Matsudo. He gives up disinterested beauty and starts painting with a thesis, that of military Japan heading for the future, and fails, because Japan loses another war and is made to feel guilty, like Germany, its ally.
The book starts in 1948 and ends in 1950. During this brief period of time, it becomes very obvious that America is now the main power, and Japan tries to imitate it. As Ono grows old, he is disillusioned, lost in his author’s irony: his old values and his old future are lost. His eight-year-old grandson plays cowboys and dreams to become Popeye the sailor man, in spite of Ono’s suggestion that a samurai is far more dignified. Caught between his two daughters’ attempt to deny his former influence (his choice of the real/Nazi over the ‘floating’ world) and his grandson’s total ignorance of what Japan once was, Masuji Ono remembers the floating world of his best years: he dreams back, of his former fame, all wrong and rejected today. Although he never utters a word about it, he experiences a deep feeling of tragedy, which is closely connected to the tragedy of his country and, on the whole, of passing time, of the treacherous revenge of history against those who think they can make it in any way.
The plot of the novel revolves around Ono’s younger daughter getting married. Noriko is twenty-six and already rejected by a young man’s family, and we infer that happened because of her father’s association with Japan’s defeat. Since Noriko has now a new suitor, Setsuko, Ono’s elder daughter, advises him to take precautions. The idea is that Ono must do whatever he can to push that guilt away from him, the guilt of having fought for ideals which led his country to disaster. Consequently, he goes to Matsuda – former fellow painter – and Kuroda – former pupil – , in an attempt to redeem his past in the eyes of his future son-in-law’s parents, who are bound to investigate, since this is the Japanese tradition.
Matsuda understands him and receives him warmly, as he is the man who opened Ono’s eyes to the idea of imperialism as a possible future for Japan; his beliefs and expectations were the same as those Ono came to cherish. They belong to the same world of guilt. Kuroda, on the other hand – and we learn that very late, close to the end, rejects Ono violently, since the latter practically, though unwillingly, sent him to prison. When Ono was an influential member of a State important committee, he turned Kuroda in. Kuroda happened to be fighting for the way Japan is following now, so his future is at one with the present future of the country. He is still strong, has now a good position and will have nothing to do with his master. Only this does not happen out of ingratitude, as Ono would have us think, by the way he orders his memories. It happens with a good reason, and even Ono is embarrassed when at last he has to confess to himself that he did something wrong. He wonders reluctantly why things turned out so terrible, since the only thing he did was to recommend that Kuroda should merely be talked to. Instead, Kuroda’s paintings were burnt, he was imprisoned and Ono is baffled, just like Stevens. The truth of the matter is he will not admit his part of the guilt (choosing a role in history rather than in the world of art). He is a victim of the irony of life.
Ishiguro’s technique is to start by mentioning a fact we are not aware of, which makes us feel guilty for not knowing anything – as if we should already know what the book which is just beginning is all about. We follow the narrative in order to retrieve the body of that first hint. The novel builds up like an endless dragon, worn by many bodies below the mask.
The style is exquisite: long sentences, perfectly logical, a trifle intricate, adapted to the narrator’s stream of thought. The narrator is Ono. The concealed stream of his consciousness is mingled with the device of a persona. Ono becomes a mask when he remembers; he does not offer us bare reality, but an impersonation of it.
The second reading brings the details to the front, and makes the irony of the narrative manner more obvious. It is just as interesting as the first one, maybe more laborious, more eager to get to the core of the story, which, due to a kind of diverted attention, may have passed unnoticed. Curiosity is stimulated, not killed by rereading.
Significantly, the meaning of the title is revealed at the end. The floating world of nightly pleasures (art for art’s sake) produced the ‘fatally flawed’ paintings of Mori-san, the Sensei, the Master. But this world vanishes with the morning (the moment of power in a man’s life). The idea of capturing the pleasures of the night, of celebrating the floating world is the idea that at the end one could at last say: Time was not wasted. The floating world (dreamy atemporality, non-living as it were) cannot alleviate the tragedy of growing old and finding oneself without a future, and – what is worse – without a present of one’s own. It happened to Mori-san, it could have happened to Ono, it could have happened to Kuroda and even to Ichiro, who is now a mere child. The tragedy of losing the future is the same for Ono as it was for lord Darlington or the butler: it is piercingly painful and relentless. But the real pain comes from the wrong choice: a flawed present (the choice of Nazism for Stevens, of Imperialism for Ono) corrupts all hope of a fulfilling future.
The war, Japan’s Nazi militarism, is the key turning point for Ono’s change from an influential painter of the present into a man with a shameful past and no future to speak of. Ono’s universe changes with the war. He has made many mistakes, from accepting imperialism as a remedy for poverty (when he leaves Mori-san), to turning in Kuroda for unpatriotic thoughts – which causes Kuroda to go to jail and start hating him. His manner is too authoritarian, in the military tradition of samurais. It can be seen in his talks with Ichiro about women being weak and easily frightened, his tone to his daughters, his irritation at their departure from his opinions. As a matter of fact, he starts as a mild old painter, retired and best forgotten, to grow to the bitter revelation of a traitor, criminal (a reprehensible present, which is now in the past) – worthy of suicide as an apology. He knows the truth, only his tragedy is he cannot accept it. Consequently, from a weak old victim, Ono turns into an aggressor.
The book begins by a harmless description of Ono’s house and its history, but it ends in desperate anger. Ono talks to us in understatements, which are a rule with Ishiguro. The memories seem to flow in a natural sequence of perfectly outlined episodes, but this sequence has deeper reasons: it justifies Ono’s acts, although he knows his acts should not be justified, because he was wrong. He admits having been wrong, but he cannot take this admission seriously. His growing irritation addresses us directly, hoping for our approval, but it merely manages to instigate us to rejection. Unfortunately, in this book the narrator is doomed to the reader’s reaction of irony.
The long, ample sentences reveal Ishiguro’s exceptional sense of atmosphere, his typically Japanese ability of catching the fixity of beauty. The floating world is in fact made up of Ono’s lost best years (when he lived in and for his painting), when he was happy, for whatever cause that may have been, and the moment his flawed present (following the floating world) is judged and discredited by the younger generation, the more Ono cherishes the lost floating world and goes ‘moping’ around, which means taking refuge in it.
The artist of the floating world revolves round the dearest moments of his life, introduces them abruptly and never reveals their halo of deep emotion. They are signalled by abrupt mentioning of still unknown details, which are explained much later, forcing us to remember them, training our memory and prompting us to remark to ourselves that we must have missed something in this game of hide-and-seek, and we must read the book again if we are to understand what the floating world actually means.
Memories slide into the present, Ono keeps ‘digressing,’ and the story continues, on condition that we remember every single detail and fix them all in place. The floating world, meaning Ono’s very soul and most exquisite experiences, looks like a medley which in the end builds up a real story. This world is the time before time, before the choice of a flawed present, which became a reprehensible past and brought about the punishment which – at the time of the floating world – was no more that an unknown future.
We advance towards the core of the book as if stepping into a dream, in which what was mingles with what is, apparently at random. As a matter of fact, each perfect episode, outlined like a minute painting painted by Ono himself, pushes us in the footsteps of the narrator, and tries to make us agree with him; when we find out we cannot bring ourselves to agree, when Ono realizes it, too, his anger is endless and his disarray frightening. We may not hate him when the book ends, but he certainly hates us.
The wheel of episodes is confusing at first. The mixture is very sophisticated, and it is much more than stream of consciousness. The atmosphere matters more than the story. The narrative is broken into perfect pieces, which may look tiny, but are huge in meaning to the narrator. We seem to wander in an exhibition of Ono’s paintings, and the paintings have been arranged in an order which eludes us at first. Only the final anger we discover, ‘irritation,’ to say the least of it, makes us grope back and discover the real pattern of irony, backwards.
A civilization appears to be dying, or so it seems to Masuji Ono. The whole Japanese past is left aside by an Americanized present, which condemns nationalistic mistakes. The butler Stevens was as much aware and as unashamed of Lord Darlington’s Nazi sympathies as Ono is of his past choice of Imperialism. They both avoid talking about that particular past: Stevens lies about having been the butler at Darlington Hall, Ono shouts at his grandson when he sees him playing cowboys, but apologizes at once, not daring initiate the child into his own time. The cruel truth is that Ono’s choice of his own present caused the future which is the present of narration in the book, however uncomfortable to its creator (Ono himself) that narration may be.
The bushy narrative advances on its ‘hands and knees,’ as Eliot might have put it, on many levels at once, with several stories in progress simultaneously. That makes the novel a fresco that nostalgically mourns the sunset of Japanese tradition. The characters are not at all endearing; they are distant, remote, rigid, and the child is even irritating at times. But the pain of the ended day, just like the remains of the day, is deeply impressive.
The book creates a strange confusion in the reader’s mind. Misunderstanding is a major device in revealing the nature of characters. Most often than not, all characters miss one another, meaning no one can make anyone out. The story gasps winding among them, curiosity mounts to a pitch, and is only fed guesses, until it becomes unbearable. The facts are not ambiguous, they are merely in the shade, veiled by incomplete exposure to our understanding. Consequently, the first time round, we misunderstand.
‘Remember’ is Ishiguro’s key word and key mental posture. The road winds from the famous painter, who (at his moment of glory in his flawed present) could easily start a young man’s career or end it – Ono did both, to the retired old painter with an unmentionable past. Furtive talks and unuttered reproaches lead us to the experience of a constant sense of guilt, rejected but unfading. There is at the same time a lot and very little to be said about the plot, because it is so piecemeal, but a lot can be inferred from the artist’s remembering, from the burning floating world of his mind and sensibility.
In this casual narrative, where we learn everything by accident, the plots are partial and need welding together. We do witness an upheaval of values and tradition, the novel actually deals with a reversal of values, from right to wrong – just like Lord Darlington, Masuji Ono is lost, but hesitation blurs all the clear-cut lines. When we find out that Ono’s son, Kenji, was killed at Manchuria, and his ashes were brought home in 1946, can we still call Ono a war criminal? Hasn’t he had his share of suffering, considering his wife died during the war, too? The novel is an expected revelation of avaricious, laconic statements that haunt us until we end by minding the least word.
Chronology is restored to its rights inside the story, but it goes backwards, like a boat swinging from now to then, from after to before, from effect to unravel the cause. Several important people commit suicide as an apology for their nationalism during the war: the head of a company, a well known composer. People talk a lot about war criminals who are as strong as they were before. Ono himself reassures his family that he is not going to kill himself, and their answer is he was not anybody important. His pride is deeply hurt, although he unwillingly notices he should be grateful for it. The irony of his predicament is striking.
The plot may be delivered in fragments, but the pain is continuous, uninterrupted. The whole book carries a flavour of suffused tragedy. It is a slow book, which takes its time in revealing its plot, and partly this slowness is due to the intensity of the experience of Ono’s tortured world/chronology. Ono must have his reputation as a painter, even if he has to dissociate himself from it. He cannot be humble, he is magnificently proud even when he admits having been mistaken.
In a symbolical way, at the foot of the hill on which Ono’s house stands – an illustrious house, itself, and a past confirmation of his past influential career – there is the Bridge of Hesitation: a hesitation between two ways of life and eventually between two worlds. A hesitation between the right and the wrong choice? How was Ono to know (how was Stevens to know) right from wrong? The world of the present is constantly nagged by moral explanations coming from the world of the past, and Ono is partial to the latter, for the sake of which which he chose to forget the eternal floating world of real painting and the hours after dark. Darkness used to mean serenity and burning memory of the soul of the day. The deaprture from atemporality, engagement in the present means the death of a generation, and it does not in the least imply that the sense of guilt ever dies. Quite the reverse, the book may start anew at any moment. Mistakes/choices are made all over again. Morality is not a safe ground with Ishiguro’s heroes. This is the root of all his irony. The piercing pain of the gap between generations, the loneliness of everyone, high and mighty or low and humble, is like a dragon of slow hesitations/wrong choices – which most aptly describes the structure of the book.
A Pale View of Hills is Ishiguro’s first novel (1982), and it exhales the perfume of his later themes as well as a certain awkwardness, or rather lack of deviousness and understatement, which makes the book extremely accessible from the first reading, consequently a little more uninviting to rereading than the following ones. Rereading is possible, but quite unrewarding, since we know everything from the first time round. Ishiguro has not hidden the core of this novel, as he did with the others, allowing us to see and even read about it in as many words.
The plot is focused on the characters’ stories and the plots are not at all complicated or confusing. The atomic bomb was dropped at Nagasaki, where the memories of the past are located. The present of the book is placed in England. Etsuko’s parents died – conceivably during the war – and she was taken in by Ogata, whose son Jiro she later on married. She had one daughter by him, Keiko, and she took her daughter along when she married an Englishman and went to England. Her choice of the present was leaving Japan.
In England she had another daughter, Niki. The book begins and ends during Niki’s five-day visit to her mother, in England. Keiko and the English husband have died. Keiko committed suicide after she had refused to leave her room for years, and had later moved to Manchester, where she was found hanging, several days after her death. Niki has gone to London, where she does not do much except live with a boy friend, David. Etsuko, the same as all the characters of this book and all Desperado heroes in general, is fiercely alone. Solitude, along with understatement, should be Ishiguro’s major key words. All under the sign of irony.
Etsuko keeps avoiding the feeling of guilt caused by her elder daughter’s death, but all she can do is to return to her life in Japan after the war, which may very well have been responsible for the girl’s suicide, along with the fact that her English stepfather never really understood her. There are a lot of explicit parallelisms, explicitness being rather unusual for Ishiguro’s later work.
While carrying Keiko, in Nagasaki, Etsuko makes friends with Sachiko, a formerly rich woman in her late thirties, who lives with her ten-year-old daughter in a derelict house which faces Etsuko’s block. From the window of her apartment, Etsuko can see their wooden cottage standing at the end of a huge waste ground, on the edge of the river. She can also see a pale view of hills, the same hills which are the scene of an outing later on, when Sachiko and her daughter Mariko, together with Etsuko have a wonderful time and meet an American lady tourist.
Sachiko is a widow and has an American friend, Frank, who keeps promising to take her to America. She desperately wants to leave Japan. She admits at the end of the book that she is a lousy mother to Mariko, who is a child in shock, after having seen during the war a mother drowning her own baby in a canal in the street. There is no visible love lost between mother and daughter, especially as Mariko hates the American man. The end of Sachiko’s story announces her intention to follow Frank to Kobe, wherefrom he promised to take her with him to America. In an outburst of despair, after drowning the kittens which were Mariko’s only attachment in this world, just as the unknown young woman in Tokyo killed her baby, Sachiko has an outburst of directness and tells Etsuko she knows she may never see America and she is a terrible mother. We inferred as much on our own, so far, anyway.
Several of the parallelisms are obvious. The woman who drowned her baby committed suicide, like Keiko later on. Sachiko drowns the kittens, like that young woman. Mrs. Fujiwara was before the war as wealthy as Sachiko, and now her family have died, all except one son, whose wife died, and she has a noodle shop in which she cooks and serves. We do not know whether Sachiko actually goes to America, but Etsuko is in England when the story is told. It seems that the atomic bomb has turned Japan into a living hell, which is vividly remembered by Etsuko, more like flames of agony than a pale view of hills.
Ogada, retired headmaster, is attacked by his former pupil Shigeo Matsuda in a communist article, for about the same reasons Ono is hated by Kuroda: he seemed to have made the wrong moral choice in Japan’s history. Ogada is an affectionate father with a sense of humour, a warm person like Etsuko herself, while Jiro is dry and rather loveless. We suspect this is the real reason why Etsuko leaves him in the end. All characters but the narrator are enigmas. They are all lonely and mysterious. Even the reader is contaminated and feels as guilty as if he had become an enigma himself. This excessive mystery is a device for elusiveness. This first novel by Ishiguro is dominated by sensibility rather than deviousness or irony.
The suspense comes from the alert mixture of stories, insufficient as they are. Each hero has his own story, very much like the heroes of Talking It Over, by Julian Barnes. Every character is exasperating to some degree, except the narrator, who, exceptionally, is here warmly emotional. His point is a highly moral one, just as it is in most of his novles – althought it never becomes as direct again. He seems to be reprimanding the world for dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. All the lives he imagines here have been maimed by it.
The characters are also milder than later on, more accessible, though not entirely explained. There is, however, an attempt at explanation, on the part of the narrator, who dwells upon what she feels, thus bestowing upon everything she remembers a halo of emotion.
A Pale View of Hills is a novel of maternity, expectant and disappointed. Although it is more endearing in tone, humour and heroes, more relaxed technically, the sense of tragedy is deeply embedded in it. It is – again and again – the tragedy of a historical choice: dropping the bomb. The hatred may not have been ripe yet in the writer’s soul. Yet the atomic bomb has left everyone and everything in a state of shock, wherefrom their apparent mildness derives. We are told that in Tokyo people lived in tunnels and ruins after it, that unspeakable horrors took place. From the exhaustion after the war to the hatred of a new beginning, the distance is very small, only one step can bridge it. The next step, An Artist of the Floating World, plunges the reader into raging anger.
Yet the beginning is made: there is no real dialogue in this book either; the characters are deaf to one another and prefer to stay what they are, unsolved mysteries. All images of them and the incidents are built on ‘speculation,’ as we are not allowed to peep, ask or nag. Ishiguro is a master of gradation, even though our curiosity does not reach here the peak achieved by the later novels.
The first book is therefore the most emotional, the warmest of all. It is also the most mysterious. All the plots are left unfinished. The enigma comes from the flaws of the narrative, which does not end in Ishiguro’s enigmatical, yet firm way. We are dissatisfied when the book ends – which does not happen in the following two novels. We are puzzled, still waiting agape to learn the truth. The novel, its plot, is an unfinished business that makes time seem a waste. Reading it twice does not improve things.
The first novel is clumsier, awkward, the warm tone of the narrative quite unlike the next two novels. It is a very promising beginning. An Artist of the Floating World developed Ishiguro’s devious technique, revolving round hatred, while The Remains of the Day reached the limit of understatement, ironically focusing on love without ever mentioning it.
In the solitude of Kazuo Ishiguro’s world, love and hatred rage unexpressed, with an intensity that makes understatement maddening and enthralling. We feel compelled to read again and again, since this phantomatic universe, living in memory only, thrives on hiding and making us find. If we really want to discover the pearl at the core of the oyster, we must give in to the compulsion of reading twice, three, four times... Like a chain reaction, one reading triggers the other. We are accepted and incorporated by an endless world of feeling and irony. Kazuo Ishiguro’s depth is engulfing and forever tantalizing.
The Unconsoled (1995) is a nightmare of irony in the first person, but this first person actually knows everything about everyone, in spite of the fact that he is constantly taken by surprise, cannot remember where he is, and keeps meeting people who cannot even begin to imagine his utter ignorance. The author hides behind his hero, who narrates even what there is to know about other characters. In this strange book drowning in the unexplainable, we are engulfed in a Kafkian dream, powerless to change it or at least to escape. It goes without saying that returning to this chamber of torture is out of the question. Out of the first four novels Ishiguro published, The Unconsoled is the least likely to invite rereading. We do feel the compulsion of finishing it, once we start reading, but the last page is an unspeakable deliverance. We wake up and are grateful for it. Its irony is scorching hell.
Mr Ryder (the only introduction we are offered) is a famous pianist who has come to an unnamed town in order to play, presumably. He fails to do so before the book ends. He may be the unconsoled, but all the other characters whose lives he intersects are unconsoled, too. A long dream of endlessly multiplied failure, unhappiness, loneliness and death. Is Ishiguro morally warning us again? Or is he experimenting a technique that combines Marquez, Borges, Kafka, into an alchemy of the unreal into credibility?
The first three novels Ishiguro published made a point of harnessing the tendency to hallucinate to coherent, very real incidents. Our doubts were never stirred, we took it for granted that we were witnessing a story, more or less understood by its narrator. We shared the point of view of the hero, and tried our best to decipher what he was not saying, out of what we imagined to be discreet reticence (but which was devious, deliberate understatement, actually). This new book is shameless, irritating and baffling. Ishiguro tries his hand at a different narrative mood, if we can call it that. Previously, his heroes were, at least apparently, accommodating and avoided a private language which we might fail to understand. The Unconsoled is the very opposite of all that. We are plunged out at sea and have to swim our way out, catching at a hint, a faint memory, a hope for happiness (that never comes true).
Ryder, ‘the world’s finest living pianist,’ ‘perhaps the very greatest of our century,’ comes to a town obsessed with music, a town where music has taken the place of politics, and has become a symbol of all social life. The taxi drops him at the hotel, but, ironically again, nobody is welcoming or waiting for him. He acts according to old automatic patterns, he relies on his subconscious to guide him, considering that all through the novel his conscious area is constantly annihilated, contradicted, proved to be worthless. A novel of the unconscious? Hardly. Everybody is very alert, with the exception of the main hero, who feels at a loss every minute and in every word.
Ryder begins by meeting the porter, Gustav, who reminds us a lot of Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day. A few days later, when this impressively long novel ends, Gustav dies, without having elucidated the mystery of his real relationship with Ryder. The only character who knows, or is supposed to know, why Ryder came to this unknown town – unknown to him and to us, but not to its inhabitants, who all besiege Ryder at one point or another, is Miss Hilde Stratmann. She talks about a schedule which Ryder ignores, and which he never actually lays eyes on. His next move is always a guess or a lucky coincidence. All through the bulk of the novel, Ryder has absolutely no idea what is going to happen next. We, the readers, accompany him in this nightmarish adventure, sharing his fears, apprehension, uncertainty, ignorance, powerlessness, even despair at times. The end of the novel brings no light, so both Ryder and reader are the unconsoled. And not only.
The town passes through a ‘crisis,’ and Ryder seems to have come in order to set it right, or at least this is what everybody ironically expects of him. We learn about this expectation much later in the book, but the crisis is mentioned in the first pages. Actually, all the characters experience their own private crises, and they all approach Ryder at one time or another, hoping he will set everything straight. In the end, Ryder can no longer stand the pressure and becomes exasperated, irritable, determined to turn a deaf ear to everyone, but that is the precise moment when the book ends, expelling him. He has served his role of catalyst. If he refuses to filter the stories we are supposed to share with him, the novel has to stop, and this happens in a ‘marvellous tram,’ a tram that ‘will get you more or less anywhere you like in this city.’ For the first time in five hundred pages, the pianist relaxes, in the company of ‘an electrician’ whom he does not know. He imagines his exit from the maze of the novel:
‘Then, as the tram came to a halt, I would perhaps give the electrician one last wave and disembark, secure in the knowledge that I could look forward to Helsinki with pride and confidence.
I filled my coffee cup almost to the brim. Then, holding it carefully in one hand, my generously laden plate in the other, I began making my way back to the seat.’
This is the way The Unconsoled ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Not with a promise, but an escape. From tragedy, from irony? Possibly from the illusion that anyone can find or impose a meaning on our world.
Information about Ryder and the town, the feelings of all the characters that cross his path sneak frighteningly upon us, and Ryder himself is scared by the mass of new elements he learns about himself. It looks as if Gustav’s daughter, Sophie, is Ryder’s wife, and her child, Boris, is Ryder’s son as well. But how is the pianist to know the truth, when he is ceaselessly overwhelmed with fatigue and defeated by sleep? He lies on his bed and worries:
‘Clearly, this city was expecting of me something more than a simple recital. But when I tried to recall some basic details about the present visit, I had little success. I realised how foolish I had been not to have spoken more frankly to Miss Stratmann. If I had not received a copy of my schedule, the fault was hers, not mine, and my defensiveness had been quite without reason.’
All the stories that follow are enveloped in a spell of ridicule and dizziness that require a special reading ability, totally different from Ishiguro’s previous demands. If we had to be alert and speculative in his previous novels, we must be totally obedient here, submitting to the rules of fantasy, that are very much related to South American literature in many respects. The author fabulates, each incident is a symbol, a fantastic equivalent for something very real but totally unknown, merely guessed at. This groping text changes us into staggering readers, who almost lose control of their own wakefulness. We wake out of the nightmare and instead of feeling fresh and relieved, we discover after a while that we miss it.
Here and there, past and present merge. Ryder meets old friends and places in a town he has never ever seen before. His memory will not help him decode the time of the novel, but it works perfectly for everything that he experienced before. He relives a childhood friendship, one in his student years, he remembers details that pop up into the present with a frightening sense of reality:
‘I was just starting to doze off when something suddenly made me open my eyes again and stare up at the ceiling. I went on scrutinising the ceiling for some time, then sat up on the bed and looked around, the sense of recognition growing stronger by the second. The room I was now in, I realised, was the very room that had served as my bedroom during the two years my parents and I had lived at my aunt’s house on the borders of England and Wales.’
The hero is hopelessly confused, and the author makes us feel that by the frequent recurrence of the symbol of corridors, passages of all kinds, doors that open into unexpected rooms, streets, lives. Space itself is contorted and subjected to strange concentrations, a district can be crossed by just taking one step, while a street can take a whole day to cross and in the end lead to another end of the town altogether.
Ryder and reader are oppressed alike by the need to rest from this turmoil of the imagination, this disorderly universe which forbids all planning. Sleep is the refuge:
‘...I felt myself sliding into a deep and exhausted sleep.’
In time, we learn to isolate several cores of the narrative: Hoffmann, the manager of the hotel, with his wife Christine, and their son, Stephan; Gustav, the porter, with his daughter Sophie and her son, Boris; Leo Brodski, the failed conductor, and his estranged wife, Miss Collins; the enigmatic Christoff, ex-leader, rejected now, possibly the cause of the crisis in the town. At first, each of them bursts into the life of the main hero, causing him and us deep irritation, but we soon learn to understand them and they feel close and dear to our hearts, once we have stepped into their inner lives. They may be disgusting, ugly, hypocrites, liars, it makes no difference. Ishiguro builds a peculiar sympathy into his book, a sympathy of ironical information. The moment we have learnt a mere few things about anyone, we are ready to open up and accept. Our curiosity and our sensibility join hands, the book makes us more generous, more welcoming than we would normally be. A secret passage into our souls is thus discovered.
To begin with, Gustav, like all other characters but Ryder, utters a long monologue, and ends by asking the famous guest to go and meet his daughter in the ‘Old Town.’ The reason he invokes is,
‘The truth of the matter is, Sophie and I haven’t spoken to each other for many years. Not really since she was a child.’
There is no intimation that there might be any other connection between Ryder and Sophie. When Sophie starts telling him about the new house she is looking for, for the three of them to move in, Ryder remains ‘silent,’ but has a strange feeling that this discussion is familiar to him. He also remembers some old argument, and repeatedly all through the book he associates Sophie with his state of irritation, with the idea of chaos in his otherwise well organized life. He even tries to justify something he seems to have done, something we do not know about:
‘It’s all this travelling,’ I said. ‘Hotel room after hotel room. Never seeing anyone you know. It’s been very tiring. And even now, here in this city, there’s so much pressure on me. The people here. Obviously they’re expecting a lot of me.’
Boris starts by behaving like, and actually is, a small child, but ends up becoming mature in an uncommonly short time. He begins by living in a world of his own, in which ‘Number Nine,’ the ‘top footballer in the world’ (Ryder being the top pianist in the world), is constantly called out loud. In the end, right after Gustav’s death, he protects his mother, and the two leave the stage alone, mother and son, no father included, since Ryder is already on his way to another destination (Helsinki).
Ryder’s relationships to the others are tortuous, rendered in a fragmentary way. He leaves one person and bumps into another, or is dragged into one more monologue. He himself knows nothing about Boris being his child until he says so himself. We have no idea why he says it, the same as we have no idea how he can find his way around in a city he has never seen before, where there are no signs, in which space can become smaller or infinite according to unknown rules. This confusion arouses a sense of panic, so typical of a nightmare, but the panic lasts for five hundred pages. Ryder seems to get used to it, and so does the reader, only to discover in the end how exhausted he really is. The real reason of the reader’s exhaustion is the utter destruction of the idea of the couple this book undertakes. The Unconsoled is a book of despairing solitude and rejection of all sentimental, fairy-tale conventions.
Gustav tries to explain to Ryder how the silence between him and his daughter came about. When she was eight years old, he decided to ‘maintain’ his silence for just three days, in spite of his deep love for his daughter. The silence lasted forever. He does not offer any logical explanation, taking it for granted that Ryder knows it all. He just describes what is going on:
‘I don’t want you to misunderstand me, sir, we weren’t quarrelling as such, there ceased to be any animosity between us fairly quickly. In fact, it was in those days just as it is now. Sophie and I remained very considerate towards one another. It’s simply that we refrained from speaking. My intention, I suppose, was always that at some opportune point – on a special day such as her birthday – we’d put it all behind us and go back to the way we’d been. But then her birthday came and went, Christmas also, it came and went, sir, and we somehow never resumed.’
Like everything that goes on in this novel, everything is illogical, and the lack of logic becomes a logic in itself. It is the logic of broken communication. We learn to live with the incomplete understanding, incomplete explanations, insufficient communication between heroes, and, implicitly, between writer and reader. Very much left on his own, the reader recognizes here a sign of Desperado literature.
Parenthood is also questioned by the imminent arrival of Ryder’s parents to this city, in order to see him play, apparently for the first time. He seems to ignore the fact until he is told about it by a childhood friend discovered here, and suddenly his parents become very important to him, only they never turn up. This may be one more way of adding to the numbers of those who are unconsoled.
The silence agreement between Gustav and Sophie is unique in this novel full of talkative strangers. The book begins with its description, and ends with Gustav’s death, when they still talk by intermediary, but Sophie manages to give him the coat she thinks he will need in winter. She also manages to talk to him directly. It is usually Boris who does the talking, and when Ryder comes on stage, Gustav asks him to do the same. Highly emotional deep down, just like the butler Stevens, Gustav stiffly obeys the law of silence, and it is no use trying to rebel against his behaviour. The characters of this book make it a point of not belonging to real life. Ishiguro instils naturalness into artificiality, and teaches us to keep an open mind and accept everything. Even Desperado literature.
Ryder begins by stating,
‘I’m merely an outsider. How can I judge?’
Actually he ends by passing judgment – when nobody is willing to listen to him any more – and has us wonder whether it is better to accept or to question everything. Between the alternatives of being an aggressive or a passively baffled reader, we are engulfed by a night of uncertainty. The Unconsoled is a huge, endless, never to be cleared uncertainty.
When he is not tired or a prey to panic, Ryder is angry. Sophie is not his only target. His anger at Sophie has deep roots, which he himself keeps discovering with amazement. But he is also angry at everyone who addresses him or asks him to do something. While all the ridiculously insignificant incidents storm around him, there is only one thing he knows for sure:
‘There’s going to be a lot of pressure on me over these next few days.’
The rest is Ryder in wonderland. He goes to a cinema, cannot buy tickets because the ‘kiosk was closed,’ is nevertheless ushered in, only to find people playing cards and arguing, while the movie on the screen is one he likes to watch over and over again: ‘the science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Bits of memories start coming back to him, he accepts the idea that he used to share a house with Sophie and Boris, when Sophie starts accusing him that he does not behave like a real father, as Boris is not ‘his own,’ and he has no idea what she had to go through ‘then.’ Consequently, memory does not help in any way. We are thus taught a lesson. Keep your brains blank, Ishiguro seems to say. We must always be willing to expect the unexpected. No prejudice – such as the old idea of what a reader should do – must stand in the way.
In a strange way, time vanishes into itself. The hero has no chronology to go by, and mainly that is why he is constantly baffled and exhausted, as if deprived of nights in order to live an interminable, five-hundred-page day. At the same time, without any explanation, Ryder knows things he has not seen, can retell anyone’s thoughts, can narrate what is going on in all the other characters’ minds. Stream-within-stream of consciousness, picture within picture within another picture.
Surrounded by despicable, loquacious characters to whom precious little happens, yet whose lives are tragically and irreversibly wasted, Ryder’s sensibility is crushed. Marquez is wildly fantastic, but makes much smaller demands on his reader. His demarcation line is totally obvious. Ishiguro’s fantasies are maddeningly reasonable, we can neither refute nor trust them. The reader is kept dangling between belief and disbelief, actually having to discard both and desperately cling to the author’s irony.
Between Lewis Carroll and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, between the absurd and the fantastic, Ishiguro is looking for a new vision. Hundreds of corridors, streets, rooms, doors become ‘very dark,’ space and time dilate to an absurd size, incidents take a fantastic, yet totally credible turn. The themes are already known: love, estrangement, parenthood, solitude, fear of alienation, the need to face the unexpected while one is not really ready for it. At least in this respect we tread solid ground. What we perceive very late is that Ishiguro makes a point here, too: he is trying to say that all attempt at living the present is doomed to fail, which is a very discouraging thesis and this is the reason why the book is felt as such a burden upon the reader’s soul.
Alasdair Gray tries a similar trick in Lanark, only he heads for a gloomy dystopia, that manages to turn horror into joy. Ishiguro, faithful to the discreetness of all his other characters, is milder on our souls. Kafka’s labyrinth appeals to him more than Gray’s violent creation of something completely out of this world. Ryder does not face any hurricane of the imagination. He merely fumbles for the story. Paradoxically, because it is Ryder who talks to us, we learn about each incident before the hero himself, and we are actually supposed to know more than he does. He constantly postpones the plot with his deep, irritating anxiety to leave one incident before it has unfurled, and head for another. Whenever he has a chance, whenever he sees no way out, he dozes off ‘contentedly,’ only to wake up all confused and more tired than before. Between sleep and wakefulness, Ishiguro’s novel is looking for a new type of existence, a new way of experiencing literature in the shade of ridicule/irony.
For quite a number of chapters, Ryder struggles through various incidents, determined to take Boris back to the first apartment they inhabited, where the child left his favourite toy football player, Number Nine. At one point, he tries to explain to the child why it is that the three of them cannot have a normal family life:
‘I have to keep going on these trips because, you see, you can never tell when it’s going to come along. I mean the very special one, the very important trip, the one that’s very important, not just for me but for everyone, everyone in the whole world. How can I explain it to you, Boris...’
Fact is he cannot, because – irony of ironies – he himself does not seem to know what he is doing. It can be anything, from politics to art. Whenever he is supposed to give a speech or a recital, though, he is absent or unable to perform. Everything takes place in his absence, and yet he knows he has to change the world. This confusion is conveyed with Japanese ruthlessness and fixity, in hieratic scenes. Our participation cannot change the book in the least – no interpretation is called for, but the book changes us, it teaches us to do the opposite, to contradict Ryder, to choose a present – even at the risk of regretting it later on.
As we go along the tortuous path of the main hero, dragged here and there against his will, dream melts into imagination, then into a kind of reality. We are trained to perceive no boundaries between true and untrue incidents. The story dissolves into nightmare, but if we do not fuss over the difference, we take things calmly and give up all expectations. It is remarkable how a book totally lacking in suspense can keep us interested by creating a very strong mood. If this is not hybridization – fiction and poetry closely allied, nothing is.
While this amnesiac narrative unfurls, we watch Ryder letting everybody down because he cannot remember anything. Two friends of his, as well as Sophie, Boris, and several other characters complain they have been waiting for him and he has not come. He blames everything on his ignoring his schedule for this visit (does any of us have a schedule for the present or the future?), but we know better. His past pops up into these few present days, and the schedule could do nothing to prevent that. We are actually accompanying him along a journey across his mind, his soul, his innermost anxieties. And we grow as anxious and filled with panic as he is. The fear of making the wrong choice, of living in the wrong way. The tragedy is nobody knows what the right way might be.
On several occasions Ryder becomes invisible or is in utter impossibility to utter a word. The other characters’ endless monologues engulf him, make him forget himself. At a reception where he goes with Sophie and Boris,
‘no one appeared actually to recognize me.’
He cannot master his anger and finds himself shouting at the author’s exasperating irony:
‘Just for one second stop this, this inane chatter! Just stop it for one second and let someone else say something, someone else from outside, outside this closed little world you all seem so happy to inhabit!’
In spite of this barrier of displeasure, through Ryder, we have a strange feeling of poignant intimacy with all the other characters. We feel we know everyone. At first everyone annoys us for a page or two, but afterwards they are old friends, and we rejoice at their company, even if they talk too much. We welcome their stories, we take delight in Ishiguro’s delicate psychology. The journeys into hallucination do not take all the author’s strength: he actually has more than enough time on his hands to acquaint us with the sensibilities of all his created beings.
There are in the book three couples that attempt a reconciliation: Brodski and Miss Collins are separated and stay like that, The Hoffmans have hopelessly grown apart, Ryder and Sophie are almost estranged. They stand no chance of being reunited, because there is a general lack of communication in the whole book. Nobody can actually talk to or be understood by anyone. Solitude is the condition of Ishiguro’s characters in all his books. Even though Sophie breaks the silence and talks to Gustav before he dies, that is just an end, not a beginning. As for Ryder’s love, Sophie decides:
‘Leave him be, Boris. Let him go around the world, giving out his expertise and wisdom. He needs to do it.’
Suddenly Ryder realizes he is sobbing. Is he the unconsoled? Or maybe Mr Brodski and Miss Collins? Stephan and the Hoffmans? Ryder and his parents? Gustav? The porters, the audience? Sophie and Boris? Probably everyone, the readers included. It is human condition and the pain of everyday life.
Against the background of Ryder’s strange family and the butler-like presence of Gustav, Ryder crosses a number of other lives in monologues and frightening spaces, which he cannot recognize. He is constantly haunted by panic, and all the characters he meets are islands of safety, no matter how much he resents them at first. There is a group of musicians. Christoff is a cellist fallen in disgrace, who used to be the leader of the town. Brodski is a conductor who was once wounded and, because of constant pain, took to drinking, separated from his wife and is now coming out of the nightmare of a wasted life, in order to perform on the same night as Ryder. Stephan, the Hoffman’s son, is a failed pianist, whom Ryder discovers to be very good, but nobody seems to notice that, not even his own parents. Ryder is the only of the three who does not perform in the end. Brodski fails, Stephan triumphs – in Ryder’s eyes – but nobody pays much attention to him. Lost in a dark hole that keeps forming and reforming, this town of modern music and full of strangers is stifling, depressing, marked by Gustav’s death as the one emblematic incident of the whole book.
Aside from the musicians, there is the group of Ryder’s earlier friends: Geoffrey Saunders (‘he had been in my year at school in England’), Fiona Roberts (‘a girl from my village primary school in Worcestershire with whom I had developed a special friendship around the time I was nine years old’), and Jonathan Parkhurst (‘whom I had known reasonably well during my student days in England’). The first two reproach him for having let them down, not having come when he had promised to visit them. None of them offers any clue as to where they are now or why they have reached this particular point in space.
While trying to make it up to Fiona, show her snobbish friends she actually knows Ryder, the pianist is inexplicably changed into a pig, is not recognized, can only grunt and even sees his reflection in the mirror. He is a pig:
‘...just as Fiona turned to me, I caught glimpse of myself in a mirror hung on the opposite wall. I saw that my face had become bright red and squashed into pig-like features, while my fists, clenched at chest level, were quivering along with the whole of my torso.’
He tries to speak and reveal his identity:
‘I made another concerted effort to announce myself, but to my dismay all I could manage was another grunt, more vigorous than the last but no more coherent. I took a deep breath, a panic now beginning to seize me, and tried again, only to produce another, this time more prolonged, straining noise.’
Another such nightmarish incident is his being taken to the reception given by the Countess while in his dressing gown. As the guest of honour, he is asked to give a speech, and is later on congratulated, while he has not actually said a word, because:
‘I cleared my throat a second time and was about to embark on my talk when I suddenly became aware that my dressing gown was hanging open, displaying the entire naked front of my body. Thrown into confusion, I hesitated for a second then sat down again.’
The tragic couples in the book are also doomed. Leo Brodski hopes to be reunited with Miss Collins. He gives up drink, has a misadventure and loses a leg, which seems to have been a wooden one anyway, complains of a mysterious wound that destroyed his life, and makes a fool of himself at the final performance. Miss Collins does not want him. Mr Hoffman, on the other hand, explains to Ryder that his wife is disappointed in him, and he ends by shouting that she should leave him, because he has ruined this important night as he ruined every other such event in his life. Sophie is in constant disagreement with Ryder, and we keep wondering if there was ever any love between the two, and why Gustav says nothing about this. In the end, all the characters are alone, with the exception of Ryder and the electrician, passing acquaintances, going round the town in a ghost tramway with a buffet and congenial atmosphere.
In five hundred pages, a whole town prepares for an exceptional night, with a change from Christoff (we never learn much about him) to Brodski, and with Ryder’s recital. Everybody, Ryder included, is disillusioned and unconsoled. The mood of every paragraph is gloomy, oppressive, hopeless. We have here more than a nightmare. Absurd and fantastic are not enough words to describe Ishiguro’s attempt. The Unconsoled is a tragic novel about theirony of life, the irony of living the present morally, as if we could tell for sure what moral really meant.