This is my first Kazuo Ishiguro and I am mighty impressed. The actual storyline of the book is good, but the subtle meanings are even better.
On the surface, this is the story of Axl and Beatrice, elderly Britons, trying to visit their grown son. But they, like everyone else in this land, have lost their memories and only have the vaguest recollection of their son and even their personal stories, including their shared history. So off they go on this very unclear quest and on their way, they meet up with a young boy (a Saxon), a soldier (also a Saxon), and Sir Gawain himself (a Briton). In the end, they do not find their son, but their memories are beginning to return and then Beatrice goes on a journey by herself to the island where the son lives. It turns out,
So, this book gracefully examines issues like how to deal with populations that live together, but have hated each other for generations; what is justified by war; the cleansing of the reputation of national heroes (a type of memory manipulation); the importance of memory to the human experience; and the deliverance of death. By the time I got to the end of the book, I couldn't believe how many thorny issues had been explored by this little fable and never once did I think I had been lectured to. In fact, what was interesting was how I couldn't decide the best answer to each issue. Is it preferable to lose your memory and live peacefully or retain your memory only to embrace hatred? Is the sacrifice of a innocents ever justified in order to end a war and does your answer change if the innocents belong to the group that "started it" (made me think about the discussion of the atom bombs used in WWII, but really, it's true of all wars). Should we abandon the whole concept of national heroes, even when very flawed people have done very heroic things? And is death a journey to be embraced or fought?
The more I've thought about this book, the more I've liked and admired it. Has anyone else read it? If not, please do and respond as quickly as possible.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Unconsoled.
I found this very fluent account of the narrator’s struggle to become orientated in a nameless town in possibly Germany to be compulsive reading. It is partly about memory loss and it recalled to me Karinthy’s Metropole,where a professor of linguistics ends up in a bustling modern city in central Europe in which nobody speaks any of the languages he knows. In The Unconsoled Mr Ryder, Ishiguro’s narrator-hero, is met with extreme politeness by hotel staff, but frustratingly he fails to get exact clarification of his mission. He is scheduled to address an audience in a small town where Mr Brodsky, a reformed alcoholic pianist has returned to perform some classical studies. Everyone in the town knows of Mr Ryder’s reputation and initially at least he receives nothing but generous plaudits wherever he goes. The reader, however, begins to doubt his sanity, since he fails to arrive for vital consultations and is easily persuaded to take on tasks for others - such as hearing Stephan, his host’s son, practice. What is almost a sub-plot involves Ryder in trying to make sense of the broken relationship between Leo Brodsky and Miss Collins. Complications multiply when we learn that Ryder’s parents are arriving to hear their son’s performance - pianistic or simply as Brodsky’s front man. Ultimately there is some doubt as to whether the Ryders senior have arrived or indeed whether they even exist within the book’s time frame.
The Unconsoled is a challenging book that deliberately frustrates its reader’s expectations. Dozens of unanswered questions are raised, many remaining unsolved at the end. Readers who like a tight plot and a tidy conclusion are unlikely to finish the book. For those who stay with it the book has many treasures and a great deal of humour - seemingly not aroused in Ryder, who incidentally has not only no parents, no wife, no son, and no first name. In place of a wife and family he becomes attached like a father to Boris, a charmingly unco-operative boy and to Sophie, the boy’s mother, a caring but frustrated picker-up of pieces dropped by her two male dependants, Ryder and Boris.
At times the book has the feel of a Lewis Carrol wonderland. Conversations mainly narrated via Ryder lead to further hints of past events; the interior becomes exterior; the unlikely is accepted as fact - when Ryder meets his old car and goes back in time to childhood for example. Some readers insist that the novel is surreal and many sequences do indeed have the floating quality of dream. We feel, Ryder feels, that we’ve been here before and there are deja vues galore. Those who seek a tidy plot should be warned that in The Unconsoled there are time breaks and time bends in this gallimaufry plunge into consciousness.
Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were pupils at Hailsham - an idyllic establishment situated deep in the English countryside. The children there were tenderly sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe they were special, and that their personal welfare was crucial. But for what reason were they really there? It is only years later that Kathy, now aged 31, finally allows herself to yield to the pull of memory. What unfolds is the haunting story of how Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, slowly come to face the truth about their seemingly happy childhoods - and about their futures. Never Let Me Go is a uniquely moving novel, charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of our lives.
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Again, my review is too long - I know I'm longwinded. So here it is in two parts:
Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book is a collection of five stories centred around the theme of music. The full title of the book is ‘Nocturnes - Five Stories of Music and Nightfall’.
That Ishiguro should choose music as a subject around which to base his stories is not surprising: as a young man, music was Ishiguro’s first career choice. He played the guitar and piano and wrote songs, and he submitted demo tapes unsuccessfully to producers who - he self deprecatingly reflects - would grimace after less than a minute and send him on his way.
It was only after the success of his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, that Ishiguro gave up his musical ambitions to concentrate on writing. Since then, he’s established himself as one of the most respected British writers of his era. He won The Booker prize for The Remains of the Day which was made into a film. His six novels have certain themes in common - regret, nostalgia, wistfulness about actions not taken. He is also a master of the unreliable narrator. He usually relates his tales in the first person, in highly accessible, chatty but nevertheless elegant language. The simplicity of his prose belies the various narrators’ veracity - they are often deluded, as was Christopher in When We Were Orphans, or suppressing their real emotions, like Kathy in Never Let Me Go, whose facade of calm hid terrible depths of anguish.
Nocturnes is a departure for Ishiguro - the form of the novel gives him the space to allow the reader to see under the narrator’s story and spot the threadbare areas, the parts where the story as related doesn’t quite fit. In the short story, Ishiguro has less space and time to develop the narrator. The unembellished, at times starkly plain prose therefore has to be taken on surface value. There are still times in this collection where Ishiguro does manage to convey that the narrator is not what he seems - for example, the egotistical, lazy sponger in Malvern Hills who presents himself as an undiscovered genius. There are hints of it elsewhere - for example, in Crooner, one wonders whether the narrator, Janeck, is paranoid in his conviction that Vittorio the gondolier badmouths him behind his back, and in Malvern Hills, the resentful narrator broods that an old school teacher asked him ‘in lessons exactly the question she sensed I wouldn’t be able to answer’, raising suggestions that he’s blaming her for his own shortcomings. But elsewhere, the enforced brevity of the short story form is an obstacle to Ishiguro working his trademark magic.
Ishiguro’s writing is always a delight to read. His lack of unnecessary adornment means that his prose slips down like nectar. His narrat0rs are always intriguing and compelling, their stories related in informal language peppered with figures of speech like ‘As I say’, ‘Anyway’, ‘I guess’, ‘But here I am’ to make them echo the sprinkling of chatty phrases found in conversation. Because of this, the monologues capture the reader’s attention immediately; there is no sense of being talked at or lectured to. This immediate intimacy is so ubiquitous, however, that the narrators of the five stories sound similar to each other except when the reader is given insights into their personality, as with the would-be musician in Malvern Hills.
The five stories all feature small-time musicians or lovers of music. The music is never the central topic, though - it acts as a backdrop to standard Ishiguro themes of unfulfilled promise or lost opportunities, damaged relationships and melancholic memories. In Crooner, a guitar player from a previously Communist country who now plays in the piazzas of Venice meets an old American musical idol of his mother’s, Tony Gardner. Gardner asks him for a favour. It is only later that we learn what is really going on. In Come Rain or Shine, a successful Londoner invites an old university pal of he and his wife’s to come and stay. The friend, Raymond, who scrapes a living teaching English in Spain, is delighted at this opportunity to visit, holding special memories as he does for the musical tastes he shares with the wife. But the true reason he has been asked quickly becomes apparent. In Malvern Hills, the inconsiderate amateur guitarist mentioned previously comes to stay with his older sister in the cafe she runs with her husband in the Malverns. He meets a Swiss tourist couple (the male of which, Tilo, is depicted beautifully as a generous, jolly soul). The guitarist’s initial dislike of the couple changes when they admire his music, and as facts about the couple are revealed, a poignancy is evoked. Nocturne features another unsuccessful musician. He embarks on plastic surgery to try and save his career and win back his wife and meets the wife of Tony Gardner from Crooner in the hotel where she too is recuperating after cosmetic surgery. Cellists is centred around the relationship between a classically trained cellist and a mentor he meets in Italy.
My main cavil with these stories - and unfortunately it’s an insurmountable problem - is their implausibility. Ishiguro has always toyed with the improbable, and sometimes the reader puts the lack of feasibility down to the unreliability of the narrator. For example, in When We Were Orphans, the narrator returns from England to Japan where his parents disappeared twenty years previously, and tells us that the the powers-that-be pull out all the stops to help him search for his parents, even though neither he nor his parents have ever been particularly significant figures. He even says that resources are diverted from acute, violent ongoing problems to his long dead cause. In Never Let Me Go, the lack of plausibility of clones being raised in order to provide organs was an obstacle for me because it’s a risible idea that this would ever get past an ethics committee, but I told myself it might occur in places with less stringent human rights than the UK.
But in Nocturnes, the implausibilities become a great stumbling block because in the limited space, there is less possibility to develop other strengths of the story. Thus in Crooner, the whole premise of the tale is ludicrous because the reason Tony Gardner gives for his action is just not true (he says he will only have a chance of a come-back if X occurs - yet the reader knows well that this is not the case). The only alternative is that Gardner is being dishonest - in which case the whole pathos of the piece is ruined because he is no longer a man for whom we feel sympathy.
Similarly, in Come Rain or Shine, the whole farce depends on the reader believing the actions related could occur. That they’re preposterous is not the only problem - after all, much of farce is based on the unlikely. The other stumbling block is that surely once Ray has found out what his venal ‘friends’ think of him, he wouldn’t care a jolt about the small spontaneous act of vandalism that causes him to embark on his elaborate cover-up. The wife’s ‘concern’ is obviously a total sham and so Ray shouldn’t care about what she thinks - his act is understandable given what he has found out. It may be that Ishiguro intends the reader to think that the malevolent (and dishonest) husband was the one who wrote and planted the hurtful item that Ray finds, but this wouldn’t work because the wife would quickly find out and explanations would out.
Nocturne uses a similar element of farce, but again, the way it comes about is so contrived as to rob the end scene of any real humour it may hold. A man is caught on stage with his hand up a turkey - but the reason this happens is frankly too unlikely to be plausible.