Kazuo Ishiguro

The Unconsoled

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The Unconsoled Summary

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The Unconsoled by best-selling British author Kazuo Ishiguro is a surrealist novel about concert pianist Mr. Ryder, who appears in an unnamed Germanic town three days before a concert and finds himself in a strange, dream-like trance. A satire on the idea of creative genius, the book is a meditation on identity, memory, and expectation. Over the course of the novel, Mr. Ryder finds himself increasingly confused about why he came to this town and who he truly is – his lack of self-recognition and self-awareness becomes a pivotal point in his relationships with the people he meets, many of whom he seems to have known before.

Mr. Ryder, an acclaimed pianist, has been invited to this small European town – likely with Germanic roots – to perform a special concert. He has also been invited to give a brief speech. The people of the town are deeply troubled due to their apparent inability to produce a musician with any significant talent, and Mr. Ryder has been asked to come and bolster their spirits.

Strangely, the consciousness and self-image of this town seem to depend on producing a virtuoso musician. The inhabitants of the town seem to be haunted by an event in recent history when the town leaders provided attention and funding to a young musician who turned out to have the wrong “artistic values.” Mr. Ryder isn’t sure what this means exactly, but the town leaders and the local inhabitants seem to agree without a doubt that there are certain kinds of creativity that should not be fostered, and that this young musician possessed those qualities. Mr. Ryder finds himself confused and appalled by the town’s inability to be open-minded to various modes of creative expression. Though their identity seems to be tied up in producing a high quality and globally renowned musician, they are so closed-minded that they ignore the possibility that very musician could be right under their noses.

This idea of self-image extends to the appearances of the townspeople. The town has a claustrophobic and threatening atmosphere despite a lack of obvious aggression on the part of the people Mr. Ryder meets. This is, in part, because, despite the fact that all of the locals treat Mr. Ryder with an almost sickening level of flattery and respect, they continually ask him for seemingly small favors that consume his days and his attention. No one is particularly apologetic about this – in fact, they seem to expect it from him. Mr. Ryder doesn’t understand why he has become the subject of these requests, but as he journeys around town he begins to feel a strange sense that he has been to this place before. A significant part of the surrealism of the novel lies in Mr. Ryder’s own inability to recognize himself or his past, and his complete lack of self-awareness. He wanders in a kind of fog, completing the requests of people he meets, all the while questioning why he has come to this town.

Things get stranger when Mr. Ryder’s suspicions that he has been here before are half-confirmed by the presence of a past lover, Sophie, with whom Mr. Ryder seems to have some kind of extensive history that he can’t remember. Sophie has a young son, Boris, who appears to be following in Ryder’s footsteps, recreating move for move the sequence of events in Ryder’s life. Suddenly, Ryder’s friends from his childhood in England appear, with a kind of incongruous dream-logic, and it becomes clear to the reader that the events that transpire have happened before, and will happen again; that in a sense, these actions are not isolated in one time or place but are constantly becoming.

Slowly, concealed information about the history of Mr. Ryder’s life is revealed to the reader through the actions of other characters, and his own lack of self-awareness is not righted but is revealed through the events that occur. All the while, Mr. Ryder experiences the horrific aftermath of presenting a false front to the world through the behaviors of the people in this small Germanic town in which he finds himself. Friends are false, lovers alienate each other, not able to achieve successful or healthy partnerships. The people’s lack of empathy in this town makes it nearly impossible not only for anyone to be happy, but also for the town to achieve its goal of fostering a creative genius. Lacking emotion, there is no room for this kind of virtuosic creativity.

Kazuo Ishiguro, a British author and screenwriter, was born in Nagasaki, Japan and moved with his parents to Great Britain at age five. Ishiguro is the author of a number of successful novels, including The Remains of the Day, The Buried Giant, Never Let Me Go, and others. He has also authored four screenplays, song lyrics, and many short stories. The Unconsoled is his fourth novel.