After almost three months of bedtime reading—a combination of plodding, groping in the dark, winding, twisting, and turning—I’m finally out of Ishiguro’s labyrinthine 500-page epic.
Truth be told, I was very tempted to put the book down midway through and simply take a break from reading altogether. After a promising introduction to his oeuvre via Remains of the Day, I was quite looking forward to be awed and impressed by yet another poignant narrative on inner struggle with memory and personal tragedy.
Unconsoled begins with familiar nuances of psychological drama, but very quickly regresses into something undefinably absurdist.
So we have the narrator, Ryder, who appears to be a renowned musical virtuoso of sorts; he’s here in the sleepy yet restless town of this unnamed country to stage a piano performance—and the implied assumption is that his arrival and presence would initiate a cultural revolution that would revitalise the rather senescent local arts scene. After Remains, I was already primed to assume that this narrator would be unapologetically unreliable. True enough, he implicitly suffers from some sort of amnesia—that, or his life has accelerated beyond his grasp, and he’s going to unfamiliar places, attending functions for unknown reasons, meeting people whose names he has forgotten, preparing for a musical performance of whose exact importance he is absolutely clueless. Given that the novel is narrated entirely in first-person, the readers are as much of an amnesiac as he is, and we discover features of the town and its people as Ryder discovers them (not before being inflected by his own tinted perception, of course).
As if that rather disorienting device and the ensuing second guessing the readers must endure aren’t enough, the narrative becomes almost disconcertingly oneiric (dreamlike) at certain junctures. The initially innocuous screen of psychological realism is rather abruptly shattered when Ryder, having travelled miles away from his hotel and stopping by an inn to rest, then proceeds to walk through a series of nondescript passages and stumbles back into the hotel in the span of one page. Spatially and temporally, this does not make sense. It was a very vivid what-the-fishcakes moment. I had to do a double take—but almost immediately knew what I was in for over the remaining 200 pages or so. The fluidity and almost surrealist atmosphere of the narrative defy at one level the physical assumptions we bring with us into the experience of the narrative world; and the moment this physics is inexplicably defied, that world is defamiliarised and our expectations as readers are thwarted and revised. Structurally, the novel itself is a testament to the same aesthetic manipulation: the sprawling narrative covers only a span of three days (between the time Ryder arrives and his concert). These narrative incongruities, like mechanical ghosts in a horror house, make the reader extremely conscious of the fact that what he reads is an artistic construct whose creator has taken liberty with the conventions of storytelling and writing. And I think that is what makes Ishiguro’s Unconsoled a work of metafiction that draws our attention to the artistry of the written word, and by implication, the anti-realism—the dreamscape—of narratorial universe.
So when this postmodernist/nihilist bible ended with a ‘denouement’ that could have easily been placed at any part of the narrative trajectory, I wasn’t at all surprised or betrayed. If there is ever a diametrically opposite term for beginning in medias res (in the middle of the action, and I think there is), this piece of absurdist work is the perfect exemplar, because it literally ends in the middle of the action. That is to say, there is no stable ending—the narrative continues even at the point where narration is discontinued—and I think Ishiguro points to this inevitable fading into imagined eternity many pages before. It’s like waking up from a dream.
Metafictive elements aside, the story has its poignant, if not tragic undertones (or else they are features that I’ve read into the text). A man who believes himself a force of cultural change—a kind of Promethean with a Messiah complex, who labours for his ideals at the cost of his relationships with those closest to him—is at last confronted with a nihilistic emptiness when what he has been duly preparing for never comes to pass. It is the absurdity of existential absence in the face of failure. What we have given our life to is never fully realised—so now what?
But our dreams never really end, do they? We simply awaken.