The Unconsoled | Critical Review by Charlotte Innes

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of The Unconsoled.
This section contains 1,384 words
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Critical Review by Charlotte Innes

SOURCE: Charlotte Innes, "Dr. Faustus Faces the Music," in The Nation, Vol. 261, No. 15, November 6, 1995, pp. 546-48.

In the following review of The Unconsoled, Innes praises Ishiguro for creating an exciting, well written, and humourous novel.

How hard it is to be true to yourself when people expect you to be something else. Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born English writer, known to millions for the movie version of his Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day, has wrestled for his identity more than most, first as an immigrant writer struggling to throw off the noose of stereotype and now as a postmodern novelist who jolted British critical preconceptions earlier this year with his fourth novel, The Unconsoled.

A discordant, plot-entangled, sometimes farcical nightmare of a book, nearly three times longer than his earlier works, filled with literary echoes and characters who won't shut up, Ishiguro's latest work has prompted reactions like "a stinker," "boring" and "chaotic."

Early American reviews sound puzzled. Like other writers who switch styles, Ishiguro will surely spark passions of every hue. For me, this is the first Ishiguro novel to arouse not only admiration but visceral excitement. As I read, it was as if Ishiguro were speaking directly to my concerns—how to juggle family, community, political activism and art. His nightmarish dreamscape doesn't entirely work. But he more than makes up for it. Here is a great writer spreading his wings and soaring high.

If controversy is new for Ishiguro, who has long been admired for his easy narrative style, he certainly knows what it's like to be misunderstood. His first two novels, A Pale View of the Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, which were set largely in post-World War II Japan, drew praise for their delicate "Japanese style"—even for the quality of the "translation"—though Ishiguro hasn't seen his birthplace since he was 5 and can only speak, not write, Japanese. Likewise, The Remains of the Day, which focused on the changing life of a butler called Stevens, drew puzzled admiration for his intimate knowledge of the day-to-day running of British aristocratic households.

In The Unconsoled, it's almost as if Ishiguro took reviewers' misconceptions to heart and cast a fog of vagueness over characters, setting and action to avoid stereotyping. An internationally renowned pianist named only Mr. Ryder arrives in an unnamed, seemingly Middle European city of flawlessly polite citizens to give a recital. Almost immediately, he finds he's also expected to solve a civic crisis that's never clearly explained. The symptoms are hinted at: "dozens of sad cases…. Of lives blighted by loneliness. Of families despairing of ever rediscovering the happiness they'd once taken for granted."

But the problem is not political or economic but musical. Citizens feel their hometown music is technically brilliant but lacks soul. The proposed solution is to dethrone the current musical leader, a cellist named Henri Christoff who is an advocate of stylistic restraint, and replace him with someone who has more verve and passion—or what one city father sinisterly describes as "true music" that shares "our values." They have chosen Leo Brodsky, an alcoholic who, it has been discovered, once had a remarkable career as an orchestra conductor.

Mr. Ryder is too polite or too afraid to ask some basic questions about this strange musical crisis, yet he feels compelled to help these people in the spirit of solving the city's problems with a sense of empathy so marked it sometimes becomes an uncanny ability to see into people's minds. He also suppresses any will of his own. A strange woman called Sophie asserts that he is her husband and the father of her little boy, Boris, and Mr. Ryder takes even this for granted, half-remembering a past with them.

Gradually, people's needs inflate Mr. Ryder's sense of mission. But as he struggles to be all things to all people—brilliant musician, devoted family man, consummate politician and social therapist—his life turns into a mess of tortuous car rides, missed appointments and barely kept tempers, culminating in the recital, a disaster that only confirms his outsider status.

Mr. Ryder sits alone on a tram with a sense of solitude so painful he breaks down and sobs. A friendly stranger offers comfort—echoing the end of The Remains of the Day—an act of spontaneous kindness that allows Mr. Ryder, like Stevens, to bury his anguish and don his rose-colored spectacles.

Clearly, The Unconsoled is tackling some old obsessions from a new angle.

In not naming the city, yet giving it a Germanic flavor and inhabitants who are unfailingly polite even under great stress, Ishiguro offers his usual cast of repressed and self-deceiving characters but in a different guise. Mr. Ryder is as misguided (and as easily swayed) in his attempts to help the city as Masuji Ono, the artist in An Artist of the Floating World who compromises his art to serve imperialist Japan. He's also like Stevens, who believes that with his unquestioning service as a butler he is making a better world.

Ishiguro's choice of music to represent a Germanic city's crisis is also significant. It suggests Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus, in which a great composer, Adrian Leverkühn (modeled on the inventor of atonal music, Arnold Schönberg), struggles to write a new kind of music: a dark tone poem, based on the legend of Faust's pact with the devil, to reflect the growth of German fascism, which famously bent the public will to its own ends with the aid of a charismatic leader. (In Ishiguro's punning dream language, Christoff suggests both Christ and Mephistopheles, and Brodsky too is a crucified savior in permanent pain from an old "wound.")

Like Schönberg's dissonant, atonal music, The Unconsoled whacks us again and again with its unharmonious message about failed communication. Worse, all this division and self-absorption is passed from one generation to the next. Mr. Ryder's unhappy childhood memories are reflected in his fraught relationship with Boris—who desperately and touchingly tries to get Mr. Ryder's attention by studying a tiling manual—and in his dealings with Stephen, a would-be pianist whose cruelly perfectionist parents remind Mr. Ryder of his own.

In Ishiguro's work, as in Mann's, people cannot handle complexity. They prefer to sweeten and deny, as Mr. Ryder does on the tram and as the citizenry does in rejecting Brodsky's debut conducting session. Like Mann's burghers who are repulsed by the torment of the mad composer and a Faust who is allowed "no consolation, appeasement, transfiguration," Ishiguro's community is shocked by the anguish Brodsky evokes in the music. (Thus in shuttered minds, the seeds of fascism grow.)

Far from being "chaotic," The Unconsoled is as tightly plotted as anything Ishiguro has written, with many interwoven narrative threads. As in his other novels, none of these threads are happily tied by story's end. With so many unresolved problems, the sadness is all the more overwhelming. Yet thanks to Ishiguro's impeccable timing, his ability to deploy the techniques of suspense thrillers and his hectic humor, what could have been a gloomy tale is a positive joy to read. Hilarious, satirical potshots are lobbed at exploitative journalists, cynical local officials, snobby intellectuals, political opportunists, smug volunteers, even a surgeon who wields a hacksaw to chop off a leg.

Still, it's no wonder critics got upset. Though the story is told in Mr. Ryder's steady and rational-seeming tone (shades of Stevens and Masuji Ono), this book feels like a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. It's every awful scenario you've ever dreamed of—from drifting down interminable corridors to dressing inappropriately. It's also a deeply personal Conradian voyage into Mr. Ryder's subconscious where he battles, mid-life crisis-style, with painful memories of which we catch only glimpses.

The Unconsoled conveys the same bleak messages as the rest of Ishiguro's much-praised work. Our self-deceptions are intolerable. Denial is a hedge against madness. Life is one long search for consolation and the ability to compromise humanity's dubious achievement. But his emphasis on the tremendous relief to be drawn from the complementary comforts of kindness and art suggest something more ambivalent here. Just as true kindness has no motive, Ishiguro says, great art, with its blend of intellectual control and instinctive sensual passion, is beautiful for an inner integrity that can't be compromised by arbitrary pressure. Music carries no moral force. But the feeling it projects, like the life-giving exuberance of Ishiguro's prose, is unmistakable.

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