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Perhaps it was inevitable that Merchant and Ivory, those most uncinematic of literary filmmakers, would get their hands on The Remains of the Day. Kazuo Ishiguro’s breakthrough novel, after all, featured servants, country houses, and bygone Britain, all Merchant Ivory specialties. But their lamentable interpretation made hash of Ishiguro’s subtle tale, in large part because they trashed the novel’s deftly filmic structure.
Since they’re set in the past and rendered in elegant, near-timeless prose, such Ishiguro novels as Day and its predecessor, An Artist of the Floating World, may not seem to owe much to the screen. Yet the novelist’s use of flashbacks is as cinematic as anything in the work of such film-obsessed writers as French “new novelists” Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and his miniaturist approach—small casts of characters, compressed chronologies—would seem ideal for movie adaptation (provided, of course, it’s not by Merchant Ivory). If Ishiguro’s neoclassical prose seems largely untouched by any experiments more recent than Dubliners, his use of structure echoes that of such experimental directors as Orson Welles and Alain Resnais.
Day and World are masterly books, stunning if read singly. Ishiguro’s problem only becomes clear if you read both, and discover their exceptional similarities in both technique and theme. (His first novel, A Pale View of Hills, shares the technique, but its theme is inchoate.) Clearly, the novelist couldn’t follow the Booker Prize-winning success of Day with yet another reiteration. Thus his fourth novel became a problem. Seven years later, the rather awkward result is The Unconsoled, and it reads like an exercise in problem-solving. It announces itself as a different sort of Ishiguro novel—if nothing else, a bigger one.
The book is 535 pages, longer than Day and World combined. Yet, like its predecessors, it focuses on a short period in the life of one moderately self-deluded middle-aged man. The novelist has expanded the novel’s scope in various ways: by entering, here and there, the consciousness of other (frequently long-winded) characters; by inventing and describing a never-identified European city; and, above all, through sheer mystification. The Unconsoled is nothing like timeless. Instead, it seems explicitly mid-20th-century, a work in the traditions of European absurdists and surrealists like Beckett, Ionesco, Jarry, and Buñuel, and rendered with the deadpan literalism of the new novelists.
In a brief summary, the novel seems straightforward. A noted pianist, known only as Mr. Ryder, arrives in a city to prepare for a concert a few days hence. The never-identified municipality, which seems to be in an area where German is or at least was once widely spoken, is unfamiliar to Ryder, and he expects not to know anyone there. In fact, Ryder is unclear about his entire purpose in the city, whose residents seem to expect his performance to be a turning point in civic life. This confusion is heightened by the many receptions, meetings, and other events at which Ryder is apparently obligated to appear, and by his utter ignorance of the schedule that has been planned for him.
As Ryder spins through this increasingly hectic whirl, however, he comes to recognize some of the city’s inhabitants. None of these people are ever identified in unambiguous terms, but the hotel porter who conducts Ryder to his room may be his father-in-law. Through the porter, Gustav, the pianist meets Boris, who seems to be Ryder’s son (or perhaps stepson) and Sophie, who is presumably Ryder’s wife (or lover). He then encounters numerous people who, it turns out, he knew when going to school in England. He also “remembers,” at the prompting of one of his handlers, that his elusive (and apparently unsupportive) parents are scheduled to arrive in the city for the concert.
More than any film, The Unconsoled recalls a TV series that first aired in Britain when Ishiguro was at an impressionable age, The Prisoner. In that series, producer/star Patrick McGoohan used the vogue for spy stories to establish a pop-surrealist premise: A British agent who attempted to quit the secret service, known only as Number 6, was kidnapped and sent to a mysterious town, called simply the Village. As with Ishiguro’s city, the location of the Village was never revealed, and various laws of physical and geographical probability were there suspended. Though sometimes the things that occurred in the Village seemed rational, at other times they followed a dream logic.
That’s the logic of The Unconsoled as well. Ryder travels to places in the city’s distant suburbs, only to walk through a door or down a passageway and find himself back in his downtown hotel. Overtaken by events, the pianist is forced to disregard certain appointments, but then finds himself at the designated time face-to-face with the person he intended to avoid. Like previous Ishiguro protagonists, Ryder attempts to keep his psychic balance in the face of outrageous assaults. This time, though, the assaults are farcically exaggerated, even supernatural. Fittingly, the perpetually lost Ryder eventually finds himself on a tram that “will get you more or less anywhere you like in the city.”
Day and World had a gravity and an impact this book lacks, in large part because the protagonists of the former volumes were still denying some aspect of the century’s greatest trauma, World War II. Ishiguro was born in 1954, so those novels are not in any way autobiographical, a rarity in contemporary fiction and one that highlights the writer’s exceptional skill to evoke times and places that he has not known firsthand. The Unconsoled is not strictly autobiographical either, of course, but it’s easy to read as a reflection of Ishiguro’s own experience. In short, the novel seems to be a parable of a book tour.
There are narrative elements here that recall Day, notably a scene in which a patriarch dies at a most inconvenient time, largely unattended by the child who doesn’t know how to speak to him. (The book is loaded with estranged parents and children.) Fundamentally, though, the novel is the story of a visiting celebrity overwhelmed by unreasonable requests: Gustav asks that Ryder put in a good word for the hotel porters, telling him that his proposed comment is the “last chance, at least for our generation.” A former schoolmate wants him to help her impress some patronizing new acquaintances. A fledgling pianist solicits him to listen to his playing and offer advice. A hotel manager implores him to peruse volumes of press clippings about his career. A newspaper reporter and photographer insist that he pose in front of a local monument of obscure significance. A washed-up conductor beseeches him to play for his dog’s burial.
As an Englishman of Japanese descent, Ishiguro is steeped in reserved, over-polite traditions, and that’s reflected by his characters’ stiff, formal dialogue. So it seems a moment of wish fulfillment when Ryder explodes at one of his well-meaning tormentors: “Listen to me! I do not care about this group of people! I do not care how long they are kept waiting!” One can imagine the writer wanting to say the same thing of his own bothersome admirers.
Ultimately, such protestations have no effect. Ryder’s plans go unfulfilled, his expectations go unmet, and—after a final act so frantic that it approaches slapstick—his very presence in the city fails to have the desired outcome. The Unconsoled ends with a sense of impotence and bewilderment similar to that of the writer’s previous work, but by substantially enlarging the circumstances around its protagonist Ishiguro has created his first novel with a late-20th-century message: that the artist is powerless to improve the world.
Kazuo Ishiguro reads from The Unconsoled at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, at Chapters.