Perhaps it was the cover that first attracted me to the book. It showed a headless man in a suit and tie, with a vast hinterland of minor characters stretching out to the edges. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this image captures perfectly the concerns of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled. Ryder, its protagonist, is both no man and everyman; as the quintessential modern character, he is empty as we are all empty.
The Unconsoled was Ishiguro’s big risk, the novel that divided critics, that John Carey and The Times called a ‘masterpiece’ but that other critics greeted with incomprehension. I came to it shortly after its publication. It was 1997 and I was 17, developing a taste for Kafka and for surreal and miserable Russian novels – the tortured faith of Dostoevsky, the angsty absurdism of Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’, ‘The Nose’ and ‘The Greatcoat’. In those days, Central and Eastern European fiction seemed to speak to my adolescent self far more than the peaceful English classics. I would imagine the looming neo-Gothic quads of my boarding-school as a snowy Prague or Petersburg through which I would wander like one of Kafka’s protagonists.
And, funnily enough, The Unconsoled reads a little as if it’s been translated into English from Czech, Russian or Polish; the language seems strangely stilted. The writing projects a sense of comic unease. Compare its opening with that of Kafka’s Th
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