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"The Unconsoled" by Kazuo Ishiguro

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message 1: by Andrew (new)

Andrew | 16 comments Mod
Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are trying to get somewhere but things keep going wrong? You get on the wrong train, get off and go back in the other direction but it takes you somewhere else, then start walking but the streets don’t go where they’re supposed to?

I’ve had those, mostly at times of stress, when I had a lot on my mind and my life felt out of control. This book is one of those dreams, described in detail for 500 pages. It sounds like a nightmare, quite literally. I think in most authors’ hands, it would be. But Kazuo Ishiguro is a natural storyteller and somehow he pulls it off. In many of his books, things are left unsaid or unexplained. His narrative style is subtle and understated. He’s the perfect person to write this kind of book.

The main character is a famous concert pianist called Ryder who arrives in an unspecified town somewhere in central Europe to give a recital. The book covers the three days of his stay in the town. As he stays, more demands are made on him, demands that he can never seem to satisfy. He never has enough time, he is always late, always tired, always disappointing people. His life feels out of control.

One thing I liked was that it was never made obvious that it was a dream. Nothing really outlandish happened - the narrator didn’t suddenly start flying across rooftops (another mainstay of my dreams) or confronting big green monsters or anything like that. The effect of a dream was created through confused logic - events narrated as if they made sense, but with a big contradiction in them. For example, an old porter who carries his luggage at the hotel talks about his daughter and grandson. He’s worried about them and wants Ryder to go and meet them. When Ryder does meet them, the daughter is now his wife or at least lover. The contradiction is maintained through the book and never explained logically. At several times, simple geography is distorted. Ryder goes all the way across town to a party at a country house, and then when he wants to go back to the hotel he discovers that he is actually already back there - he just came in by a different entrance and didn’t recognise it. A ticket inspector on a tram turns out to be an old childhood friend from England. Like everyone else, she expects a lot from him and he lets her down.

I realise that it probably still sounds like a nightmare of a book. It’s hard to explain quite why I liked it. I suppose the premise was so difficult that it was good to see Ishiguro pull it off so artfully. There were also a lot of interesting subplots about the people in the town - an alcoholic old conductor, Brodsky, who’s trying to resurrect his career and win back his wife; a hotel owner Hoffman and his son who wants to be a pianist but only disappoints his parents; Ryder’s relationship with Sophie and the boy Boris; the old porter Gustav and his friends who meet in the Hungarian Cafe. I was interested in these people partly for themselves, and partly because if the whole thing is a dream, then they are clues to the dreamer’s personality: figures from his past, people he feels guilty about treating badly, or perhaps different incarnations of himself at various points in his life.

Despite all the good points, the book did feel very long after a while - the action is deliberately repetitive and circular, and I thought that it could have been shortened quite significantly without losing much of the overall meaning of the book. But I still felt compelled to read on, even though I knew really where it was all going. And at the end of it all, I had that warm feeling of satisfaction that comes from having read a really good book.


message 2: by Sarah (last edited Jun 06, 2009 01:42AM) (new)

Sarah (sarahj) I finished this earlier this year. I really love Ishiguro, and his favorite themes on memory/remembering, the past, things slipping away before we can properly grasp them. He's a beautiful writer and he tells a great story. Still this one went awry for me. Too much circling and retracing. I did like the dreamlike quality, the characters, the disjunctions and occasional Kafkaesque-ness, but for the most part I felt there was too much meandering.
I've read other reviews that also explain the book as a dream, although I'm not so sure myself.


message 3: by Andrew (new)

Andrew | 16 comments Mod
Hi Sarah

I know what you mean - it did go on a long time, and definitely meandered!

It's interesting that when I read the book, it struck me immediately as a dream, and I was surprised to see other reviews that didn't explain it in that way. I suppose it depends on what type of dreams you have. As I mentioned, the book was strongly reminiscent of dreams I've had, so I naturally was drawn to that explanation. And to me, a dream was the only way to explain the logical inconsistencies, like driving across to the other side of town and finding himself at the back entrance of the hotel where he started, the appearance of a wall blocking his path as he's about to reach the concert hall, the sudden appearance of long-lost English school friends, describing scenes at which he was not physically present, the distortion of time, etc.

Would be interested to hear what you made of those aspects of the novel. If not a dream, then how to explain them?

Thanks for the comment! I just finished Nocturnes by the same author, and will post a review soon.


message 4: by Gerald (new)

Gerald Camp (gerryc) | 4 comments Andrew wrote: "Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are trying to get somewhere but things keep going wrong? You get on the wrong train, get off and go back in the other direction but it takes you some..."Great review. I loved the book too.




message 5: by Andrew (new)

Andrew | 16 comments Mod
Thanks Gerald, glad you liked it - both the review and the book. I guess it counts towards your 1,001 too, so it's good if you enjoy it as well :-) Good luck with meeting your goal!


message 6: by Gerald (last edited Jul 01, 2009 10:51AM) (new)

Gerald Camp (gerryc) | 4 comments Andrew wrote: "Thanks Gerald, glad you liked it - both the review and the book. I guess it counts towards your 1,001 too, so it's good if you enjoy it as well :-) Good luck with meeting your goal!" Thanks, Andrew. I'm a total Ishiguro fan. One of my all time favorites is "Never Let Me Go." I see that you've read it and gave it five stars, but didn't write a review. It's an almost impossible book to review without giving away the truth about the children, which obviously Ishiguro wants the reader to discover as he/she reads and thinks about their strange lives.




message 7: by Andrew (new)

Andrew | 16 comments Mod
Hi Gerald,
You're right - what I loved about Never Let Me Go was how Ishiguro let the information flow in very slowly, like a drip feed. It was great how the narrator assumed that we knew all about her world and treated it as normal, so even when she mentioned strange things about the future we didn't really understand. Then at some point all the hints accumulate to a point where you realise what's happening, and it's certainly not a "happy boarding-school reminiscences" book any more!

So yes, that does make it quite hard to review. I might do it one day anyway - the main reason I haven't is that I read it before I was on Goodreads. These days I try to review everything, even if only briefly and belatedly!


message 8: by Gerald (new)

Gerald Camp (gerryc) | 4 comments Andrew wrote: "Hi Gerald,
You're right - what I loved about Never Let Me Go was how Ishiguro let the information flow in very slowly, like a drip feed. It was great how the narrator assumed that we knew all about..."


That seems to be a constant with Ishiguro: that the reader learns more about the protagonist than the protagonist knows about himself. The clearest example, I think, is "Remains of the Day" in which the protagonist is totally oblivious to the happiness he could have right at his hand. There is always an ironic distance between the protagonist's perceptions and the readers. It was certainly there in "When We Were Orphans" but it didn't work as well for me in that book for some reason.




message 9: by Sarah (new)

Sarah (sarahj) "Never Let Me Go" was fabulous, and so low-key. I loved it, too. It moved slowly, strangely and sadly.


message 10: by Cristina (new)

Cristina | 2 comments Andrew wrote: "Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are trying to get somewhere but things keep going wrong? You get on the wrong train, get off and go back in the other direction but it takes you some..."

I see it more as a sum of regrets a human being has. If you read between the lines you can see that all the main male characters are in fact Ryder at different stages of his life: the child in a broken family, the young man constantly looking for his father's approval, the father who puts too much pressure on his son because of his frustrations and the old pianist who failed in his life and is trying to redeem himself. And maybe the random characters from his past that he meets in strange stiuations are people to whom he has done something wrong and wishes that he could make up for it. I personally believe that it is Ishiguro's more complex book. No other book of his leaves room to so many interpretations. It was definitely interesting to read and the feeling of frustration is at some point quite overwhelming. That's why I think that it is very comforting that it ends the way all of Ishiguro's books end: with the character realising that he cannot change the past and he has to come to terms with his regrets.


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