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A Tourist in Search of Home

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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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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 The Castle:

The taxi driver seemed embarrassed to find there was no one – not even a clerk behind the reception desk – waiting to welcome me. He wandered across the deserted lobby, perhaps hoping to discover a staff member concealed behind one of the plants or armchairs. (The Unconsoled )

It was late in the evening when K arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there . . . Then he went on to find quarters for the night. The inn was still awake, and although the landlord could not provide a room and was upset by such a late and unexpected arrival, he was willing to let K sleep on a bag of straw in the parlour. (The Castle)

Both have the same mannered humour and dry delivery. The opening of Kafka’s novel parodies the Nativity story, one from which – as a Jew in Catholic Prague – he may have felt excluded. There is ‘no room at the inn’ and K, the ‘unexpected arrival’, must sleep on the straw. In the Ishiguro, the humour is more surreal; when do hotel staff ‘conceal’ themselves behind potted plants? Both protagonists arrive to strange welcomes; the land surveyor in The Castle has been invited but, like Christ, is unwanted. By contrast Ryder, the international concert pianist in The Unconsoled, is expected but, as the novel proceeds, is unable to bear the burden of the demands placed upon him. In both novels there are strange jumps in time and space, and absurd coincidences, in The Unconsoled often extremely funny. Frantic to escape from a claustrophobic party, Ryder walks into a broom cupboard. A man’s leg is painfully amputated but turns out to have been prosthetic all along. The manager of the hotel Ryder is staying in drives him for hours to get to a reception in a building which turns out to adjoin the hotel’s annexe, so that Ryder can simply walk home. At other times the narrative leaves me disturbed and anxious. Ryder is escorted by a pack of newspaper reporters to have his photo taken in front of a controversial monument. All the time he can hear them calling him a ‘difficult shit’, yet he says nothing. A friend of Ryder’s (who just happens, with various other acquaintances and possibly Ryder’s own family, to be living in the city where he is performing) is banking on the fact that she knows the famous Ryder to impress her friends. But Ryder is unable to announce his presence in front of the friends, or even open his mouth, instead reddening and contorting in front of the mirror like a pig. His face, he tells us, ‘had become bright red and squashed into pig-like features, while my fists, clenched at chest level, were quivering along with the whole of my torso’. This weird humour is strangely infectious. When I shared a house in London a few years ago with a couple of fellow enthusiasts, we’d frequently revert to talking in a strange Ishiguro voice: ‘Ah yes, that’s sure to be most useful’, ‘You must convey my gratitude’, ‘I am heartened to discover’ and so on. While some critics think Ishiguro’s style is his weakness, to me The Unconsoled is a delightfully rich exploration of awkwardness and social unease. As in Kafka, the humour and the creeping anxiety are not contradictory but belong together. The protagonists, like clowns, are denied their dignity; we can only laugh a despairing laugh. But while the book seems to parallel Kafka, it also feels like a parody of Kafka. The nameless labyrinthine city of The Unconsoled, a weird synthesis of central European culture, is not the Prague of K, but the Prague (or Vienna, or Krakow, or Berlin, or Vilnius) of globalized tourism. And Ryder is the typical tourist, everywhere yet nowhere, wandering the Old Town trying to feel a connection to a history that is not his. Stability and rootedness elude him, and the book, like a lengthy session of psychoanalysis, returns again and again to the figures of Ryder’s (possibly dead) parents, who remain just outside the narrative.

While Ryder is desperately trying to piece together the different parts of the strange jigsaw that is the city, at the same time it feels oddly familiar to him. He may have a wife and son living there; he may actually have lived there himself. But we’re left feeling that the very same thing might happen in the next town he visits – that each new journey is a confrontation with his own past.

The book unfolds like one of those dreams in which we’re lost in places that are both familiar and strange, where our wandering seems always tantalizingly about to end but never does. Ryder’s quest is all our quests for identity, in an age when we fear all places are becoming the same, one in which we feel lost, even when we’re at home.

For many of Ishiguro’s protagonists – from the butler Stevens on his journey through England in The Remains of the Day to the displaced musicians in Venice in his short-story collection Nocturnes – home is an elusive concept. And then one remembers that behind the wandering musician Ryder is the Japanese-British musician and writer Ishiguro, whose perspective on the global mix of cultures and the figure of the traveller is both totally modern and uniquely his own.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 33 © David Barnes 2012


About the contributor

David Barnes regularly gets lost in the alleyways of cities like Prague, Venice and London. In his spare time he masquerades as an academic and has written on such diverse subjects as hip-hop lyrics, Victorian architecture and Italian fascism.

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