It is perhaps too easy to call Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled “Kafkaesque,” and yet from the Central European setting to the befuddled narrator trying to make sense of a vaguely nightmarish world in which there seem to be hidden connections that he can’t quite discern, it is Kafka who is surely the reference point here.
One major difference, however, between The Unconsoled and (say) The Trial is that the problems besetting Ishiguro’s narrator and protagonist, a pianist by the name of Ryder, come because he is celebrated, rather than persecuted. But as time goes on, the line between celebration and persecution becomes increasingly blurred, and what begins as mere befuddlement approaches closer to nightmare.
Ryder has been invited to give some kind of recital in an un-named town that features a hotel in which Frederick the Great may once have stayed, run by a manager who is a little too eager to be of service; a historic Old Town with a Hungarian Café at which the hotel’s porters relax, gossip, and give rousing displays of their bag-handling prowess; a more modern, windswept housing estate a bus-ride away in which a committee of busy-body housewives rule the social roost; and a series of other more or less shadowy locales and colourful but slightly creepy characters.
Just about everyone that Ryder meets declares themselves incredibly honoured to make his acquaintance at last, and almost all of them have some little favour to ask–if it is not too much trouble, though they swear that it will surely not take more than a minute or two. The hotel manager, for instance, would like the great pianist to glance at some scrapbooks his wife has put together; the hotel porter hopes that, in the speech that Ryder somewhat belatedly finds he is due to give at the recital, he may spare a moment to mention the work done by porters such as himself; and so on and so forth. All these small favours add up, most of them come to take up much more time and effort than anticipated, and soon Ryder finds he is slowly being suffocated by these small requests for kindness.
At first sight, people are simply being over-familiar. But in fact Ryder starts to realize that some of these new-found acquaintances are familiar, and include old schoolfriends strangely displaced. Others should be rather more familiar to him than they are. Above all there is Sophie, the porter’s daughter, and her son, Boris. She treats the distinguished visitor as though he were her estranged lover, and her son as though he were Ryder’s own offspring, and soon Ryder is almost convinced that she is right. Everything seems to resonate some dim memory somewhere. And if everyone has some small stake in Ryder’s visit–the housewives’ committee, for example, aggrandize themselves with the honour of looking after the musician’s parents–in some cases Ryder slowly realizes that he, too, has some kind of stake even though he can’t fully work out what it is himself.
It is tempting to try to come up with a rational key to this otherwise mysterious story. Is the answer, say, that Ryder is suffering from amnesia, shock, or delusions of some sort? There are certainly hints towards such narrative “solutions,” and there is for instance no doubt that very many characters are in the grip of a variety of delusions–not least concerning the role of art and the way that this obviously much-anticipated visit by a celebrated musician might improve the profile and prospects of the town. And yet, on the one hand, there are a number of strange occurrences that really can’t be fully explained away: space and time both appear warped, as when Ryder finds his childhood car rusting in a field outside a reception given in his honour. We find it hard to discern any hard border between delusion (or dream) and sanity (or consciousness); both are delineated with the same measure of realism. Moreover, on the other hand, it is as in Kafka precisely the search for logical explanation that gives rise to the greatest madness. Here, too, it is a bureaucratic logic (if in the form of making things easy for an honoured guest, rather than difficult for a suspected criminal) that ultimately throws up the “utterly preposterous obstacles everywhere” that are “quite typical of this town” (388).
In the same vein, it is hardly spoiling the plot to reveal that the recital never ultimately goes ahead… and, indeed, that it never particularly matters, either for the plot or for the experience of reading the book. In the end, if there is any logic to the long-anticipated event at all, Ryder slowly discovers that it has less and less to do with him. However much he is told he is the centre of the fuss and activity all around him, he comes to see that really he is only an excuse at best, a vehicle for other people’s desires to play out as they try to position themselves within the community, or to reposition the community itself. The means by which they establish their positions is art, or the (often rather abstruse) discussion of what is apparently defiantly difficult modern art–in some ways The Unconsoled is almost a case study in the (il)logic of Bourdieusian symbolic capital. And finally even the art itself hardly matters.
So Ryder finds himself, as the book ends, a “rider” on a tram whose route is an apparently endless circuit of the town, or perhaps a rhizome that brings everything together. For “you can go anywhere on this tram” and it seems to offer its riders a full breakfast of “eggs, bacon, tomato, sausage” (533). Soon the pianist, now that the time for the recital has come and gone suddenly at a loss if no longer as lost has he once was, is happily eating and chatting, in no hurry to get off or go anywhere in particular. Despite everything, “Things had not, after all, gone so badly,” he muses (534). He might even agree with his new friend: “Oh yes, this is a marvellous tram” (533).
And perhaps The Unconsoled, for all its gloomy title and Kafkaesque ambience–and the title is justified by the fact that everyone here is wounded in some way or another, and consolation would require some portion of the resolution that Ishiguro refuses–resembles somewhat the tram with with which the novel finally and rather arbitrarily ends. Perhaps it’s because we ultimately don’t care enough about the petty squabbles that occupy the townsfolk so, but the book turns out to be a sort of Kafkaesque comedy: rather aimless, and mysterious in its constant circuitous motion, but the journey alone is enjoyable enough for a while, even if it means we miss our stop a few times.