The decadence of jazz, the immorality of rock ’n’ roll, nihilistic punk, the anger of “gangsta” rap, ennui-ridden grunge. Most kinds of popular music—and even some high-culture styles—have been seen as reflections of society’s supposed decline. In The Unconsoled, British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro reaches 1 back to the early part of the century and the atonal music pioneered § by Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg for a metaphor to evoke the ^ chaos of contemporary life. As one character remarks, serious mod| em music sounds like “crashing noise, a whirl of strange rhythms” ° which, in turn, sounds like the discordance of society.
It is a clever idea: that music, no matter how unmelodic, represents a search for meaning in a confusing, contingent world; that the obsession of the characters in The Unconsoled with interpreting 20thcentury repertoire parallels our culture’s loss of direction. But Ishiguro, best known for his Booker Award-winning novel The Remains of the Day (1989), later adapted as a film, has written a book so plotless, so oblique, so difficult to read that the idea is lost in maddening digression after maddening digression.
Ryder, the narrator, is “not only the world’s finest living pianist, but perhaps the very greatest of the century.” In the middle of an international tour, he checks into a hotel in an unnamed Central European city where he is to perform in a few days. A porter named Gustav
shows the pianist to his room, and it occurs to Ryder that “for all his professionalism . . . [Gustav] was worrying once more about his daughter and her little boy.”
Ryder is more than acquainted with Gustav; he knows Gustav’s daughter and her son, and may even be their husband and father. He cannot quite recall. It is Ryder’s forgetfulness—not quite amnesia, but more than absent-mindedness—that forms the heart of the story. As he roams the Kafkaesque streets and hallways of the provincial city, Ryder is beset by the queasy feeling that he is both a local and a stranger, a native and a foreigner.
In his wanderings, Ryder is accosted by Christoff, a formerly preeminent musician in the city. Christoff has a systematic approach to music, a “way of discovering meaning and value.” Ishiguro never
Zindicates what that system is, but does say that it has been discredited. Christoff wants Ryder to take up his cause, but the local countess has already decreed that the musical interpretations of an obscure conductor named Leo Brodsky is the way of the future. Brodsky lives in a shack on the edge of the city and is the town drunk, a despairing alcoholic who stands outside his former wife’s house and shouts abuse. When the town elders heard Brodsky’s music, however, they realized they were “listening to true music again. The work of a conductor not only immensely gifted, but who shared our values.” Again, Ishiguro does not explain what it is about Brodsky’s approach to music that has excited people.
Getting Brodsky clean and sober so that he can perform on the same bill as Ryder is what unites the people of the town. Brodsky, for his part, simply wants to be reconciled with his wife. And Ryder, the sophisticate, is expected to give a speech that the insecure provincials hope will guide them in their understanding of modern music and tell them their values are good, that there is hope in the hopelessness. But as Ryder becomes increasingly exhausted and irritable at the demands placed on him by the city’s sycophants, so does the reader at the chess game Ishiguro is dispassionately playing.
The frustration with The Unconsoled is that every time the story threatens to advance, Ishiguro veers off in another indirection. Ryder, for example, poses for a newspaper photograph in front of the Sattler Monument. Just as the reader is about to be told of the monument’s significance, Ryder is tugged away by the desperate Christoff. Many pages later, Ishiguro writes that Ryder’s picture and his newspaper interview about the Sattler caused a sensation in the city. What Ryder said and what the Sattler is supposed to symbolize remain mysteries. This, despite the fact that they are central to the controversy gripping the city.
In his earlier novels, Ishiguro used an elliptical style of storytelling to great effect. In the masterpiece An Artist of the Floating World (1986), he gradually revealed a Japanese artist’s imperialistic ideals and esthetics and subtly raised profound questions about the relationship of art to politics, belief to action. And in the The Remains of the Day, the restrained voice of the butler, Stevens, betrayed the darkness at the soul of Britain’s mannered aristocracy.
Ishiguro is a stylist like no other, a writer who knows that the truth is often unspoken. But it is no coincidence that The Unconsoled is more than twice the length of his previous works. When, after 522 boring pages, Ryder says, “Perhaps I should try and say something” to the people of the city about redemption and Brodsky and music, it is painfully obvious he has nothing to say. And that, disappointingly, is the problem with The Unconsoled.
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