This book was paradoxically very engaging and incredibly frustrating: I raced through all 500+ plus pages in only a few sittings and in under a week but spent most of that time shaking my head incredulously (metaphorically and literally) at its happenings. From the other two books I’ve read by Kazuo Ishiguro (A Pale View of Hills and the Remains of the Day) this was unprecedented – the latter I found tiresome to begin with (but it did pick up later on) and neither was half as readable – I’ve only got “Never Let Me Go” to read now, but I’ve spoilt that already by watching the film ages ago (and haven’t heard amazing things about the book).
At the beginning of the Unconsoled a celebrated pianist (Mr Ryder) arrives in an anonymous European city for a reason he can’t seem to remember to find that he has an unbelievably busy schedule, of which he seems to have no prior knowledge (although later he does seem to remember starting to review the schedule on the plane – but can’t remember the particulars – which throws into question whether he has forgotten his relationship to this town just like he forgot the schedule because most of the story doesn’t really add up). The city is full of people who know him, admire him, and have (sometimes unreasonable) demands of him – uncannily, despite it being somewhere unremarkable in Europe, a number of these are acquaintances from his childhood in rural Worcester or university days in England. There’s also Sophie: a woman with whom he has a child (and some form of relationship) – yet when we encounter Sophie’s father Gustav in the opening pages Ryder does not seem to have any recollection of having met him before. Admittedly, I did get quite excited at the start because Gustav is a porter in the hotel and I thought for a few pages that this might be the story of the film the Grand Budapest Hotel (it’s not).
This vein of familiarity/estrangement is concurrent throughout the novel – Gustav asks Ryder to talk to his daughter Sophie for him: in the context of Ryder being a guest at the hotel and Gustav a porter (and this only being their second meeting) this seems outlandish and slightly absurd – but as it transpires that Ryder and Sophie have had a relationship for some years what then becomes curious is that Gustav felt the need to introduce and describe his daughter to Ryder – surely he should recognise her ? And (above all) surely he should remember her ? Rarely are we given a character’s history, meeting them in the same instant as our narrator, however as Ryder is supposed to have encountered them previously it’s sometimes like we’re meeting them as ignorantly as he is, but sometimes his memories and past encounters come back to him – and sometimes Ryder becomes omnipresent, and his narration follows characters out of the room or building in which he remains, narrating their actions from afar – and in some case their feelings and thoughts. To be honest, if at any point Ryder had woken up and realised it was all a dream I wouldn’t have been surprised (I was almost surprised it didn’t end that way – but didn’t think it could because my overbearing memory of any kind of GCSE English writing project was ‘don’t end it with them waking up and it was all a dream’) – especially with some of the more ridiculous events (at one point he is telephoned in the middle of the night by the – annoying – hotel manager and goes down in his dressing gown for what he thinks will be a quick chat, but turns out to be to be transported to a formal dinner, at which – still in dressing gown – he is supposed to give a speech and stands up to do so only to realise his robe is open). Definitely weird. I haven’t googled it yet to gleam some sort of further insight about what it’s actually about – this is one of the strangest books I’ve enjoyed.