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Saturday, May 27, 2017

‘The Unconsoled’ - Living In Ishiguro’s Nightmare And Our Own

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is a novel set in an unnamed Eastern European country.  A famed musician has arrived in the capital to play a concert.  He visits the concert hall, greets local dignitaries and fellow musicians who have met him, and goes to the hotel to rest before the evening’s performance.

Image result for images ishiguro the unconsoled

At each stop, however, he is drawn away from his program.  He cannot visiting the home of an admirer, even though it is far from the city. He becomes entangled in a web of appointments and promises which he cannot seem to remember, struggling to fulfill his commitments before his performance, frustrated with his inability to take control.  Each commitment takes him farther from the town and the concert hall and yet he cannot turn anyone down.

It becomes more and more unlikely that he will make it to his performance on time, and yet the harder he tries to disentangle himself, he cannot turn down any request.  He is too polite, too formal, and too respectful to refuse even those who are unfamiliar to him.

The novel is a tour de force  - one, long, intricate, nightmare, no different from our own - fifteen minutes to get to the airport on unfamiliar roads, driving at night through strange towns, detouring for traffic, funeral processions; slowed by rain and unexpected snowstorms, an important bag left on the curb, an expired passport, signs indicating the airport miles off, detours through unfamiliar towns in distant states.

Yet the incidents in the novel are not so bizarre nor random.  Each is relevant to the pianist, although he cannot quite figure out why.  There is something reasonable and vaguely recognizable about them; but they have no coherence.  One leads to another by circumstance or coincidence, but they are no less compelling to him.  He not only cannot refuse these polite invitations, he suspects that they are in some way important.

However each one leads nowhere but to another unconnected, unexpected invitation.  The pianist does not complain nor insist that he must leave; but even though he sees that he will barely have time for rehearsal, formal dress, and time to get to the concert hall, he does nothing to stop the continuing, endless detours.  They are pleasant and interesting but purposeless, leading nowhere. 
"Much was expected of me," Ryder repeatedly muses as one distraction follows another. Gustav, the elderly hotel porter, begs the influential celebrity to speak on behalf of him and his co-workers, and Ryder is persuaded to meet briefly with Gustav's troubled daughter and her small son. The hotel manager asks Ryder's advice for his son, a hopeful pianist of no particular talent.
Orchestra conductor Brodsky, a drunken has-been mourning the death of his beloved dog, becomes another burden Ryder finds he cannot shirk...and on it goes. Gradually, Ryder experiences momentary memory flashes during which he realizes he does know things about these people, not excluding their most intimate thoughts.
Are they relations and acquaintances whose closeness to him he's forgotten or repressed? Or people whose lives only coincidentally impinge on and resemble his own (a general truth he may have neglected to absorb)? Kirkus Reviews

Image result for image grand piano in concert hall

Unlike our dreams where each detour on the road to the airport is constricting, voiceless, and panicked, the pianist simply cannot resist what are simple, reasonable, and polite requests.  As he gets farther from town, he still believes he can make it to the concert, so he is not right to refuse hospitality and friendship.

All of which makes his nightmare worse, for it is endless – a series of chance encounters leading nowhere but unavoidable and somehow vaguely meaningful.  He accepts not only because of his formal Eastern European manners but because there is so much familiarity and intimacy in each encounter – even though he cannot understand why – he cannot ignore them and must go on to the next.  He may yet figure out what they mean, what the pattern of the series is, and why it is important. 

At the same time missing the concert would be the worst breach of etiquette, diplomacy, and respect.  The concert is why he has come to the city and his playing will be enjoyed and appreciated by hundreds – far more than the incidental acquaintances he meets on the road – but he cannot stop himself.

Few critics have agreed on the purpose and meaning of the book.  Some have thought it a reflection on artistic temperament – the pianist is so absorbed in himself and concerned with his self-importance that he cannot help but accept the vague, impossible invitations he receives. 
Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote:
Ryder and Stevens (Remains of the Day) are actually mirror images of each other. Both are unreliable narrators whose fragmented, elliptical reminiscences will gradually expose their self-delusions. Both are willful professionals who hide behind the mask of their vocations. And both are cold, pragmatic men who have cut themselves off from reality and emotional commitment.
Image result for images film remains of the day

Others have commented on the obsequiousness of those who importune him, suggesting that it is they – the audience – who are self-important and whose artistic pretense cannot hide their bourgeois interests.
Nearly everyone Ryder encounters, in fact, seems to be suffering from an inability to connect or communicate with a loved one. Brodsky, a local drunk who has been rehabilitated and cast in the role of resident artistic genius, has been estranged for many years from the woman he loves. And the hotel manager, Hoffman, appears to be seriously out of touch with the feelings of his wife, and their son, Stephan, a talented young pianist (Kakutani)
Yet Kakutani feels no sympathy for the pianist, and although she appreciates Ishiguro’s philosophical, Kafkaesque transformations, she concludes:
It gradually becomes clear, however, that Ryder's impatience is a symptom of his own utter self-absorption and his dangerous belief that the pristine realm of art can be neatly fenced off from the chaotic world of real life. In fact, he will reveal himself to be as monstrously divorced from human emotions as Stevens was in "The Remains of the Day": just as Stevens neglected his dying father to attend to routine household chores, so Ryder neglects two mortally wounded men to get on with his professional duties as an artist.
Others see something more sinister and rather than dismiss what Kakutani sees as philosophical dalliance, consider it the most important theme of the book:
Yet, so adroit is Ishiguro in maintaining suspense that one is as ensnared in the nightmare as is Ryder. The story seems to be a journey through life: its purpose never entirely clear, its events capricious and inexplicable, its destination undoubtedly ``the vast, dark, empty space'' of the soul's extinction – Publishers’ Weekly
This is by far the closest to a correct interpretation of the book.  It is neither about class, the artistic temperament, or an indictment of the cold, passionless, and removed world of the blissfully ignorant.  It is about nightmares, and the nightmarish frustration of trying to make sense out of an essentially disconnected and meaningless world.

Other philosophers and authors – Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Descartes and many others – have tried to explain the contradiction between the human search and need for meaning in an essentially random, meaningless world. Nietzsche was perhaps the most clear and definitive on the subject. The expression of pure will is the only validation of individual existence in a meaningless world. 

Image result for images nietzsche

Sartre saw the importance of ‘ascribed meaning’ – an emphasis on individual experience which emanated from the belief that, ultimately, people cannot appeal to universal notions of morality or ethics to guide their behavior (as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche postulated); and that any attempt to generalize human nature, and hence any attempt to construct a system based on these universals, is doomed to fail.  As a Marxist, Sartre saw individual action as self-validating when it was done within a social context.

Ishiguro’s vision is quite different.  It is impossible, he says, to make sense out of the random but interconnected events that define and describe our lives.  Some of the people he meets in his concert city are apparently from his past, but he has forgotten or dismissed them; others are complete strangers but which attract him because of their familiar stories and experiences.  Yet because they are so unconnected that they do not even form a pastiche which the pianist can accept as ‘reality’.  They remain as meaningless and random as any one of them.

Ishiguro’s benign nightmare is our own.  We try to figure out what’s what but have no luck.  Allegiances and loyalties are shifting.  Values are relative.  Friendships, love affairs; family, community, and religion are social constructs with no inherent value or meaning.  We all die alone.
What’s the point? asked Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina. What a cruel irony that God created man with intelligence, wit, insight, and creativity, allows him to live for a few short decades, then consigns him to a dark eternity beneath the cold, hard steppes.

Ishiguro sees no drama in the perplexity.  No Supermen, no weedy intellectuals, no Hedda Gabler, Tamora, or Hilde Wangel. Just a long, drawn out, frustrating nightmare.

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