The Unconsoled 
by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Faber, 535 pp., £15.99, May 1995, 9780571173877
Show More
Show More

The shame of being on the wrong side of history: this is what Kazuo Ishiguro’s first three novels have been about. It is not a condition that has been written about a great deal in English, because the English language, ever since ‘literature’ was created and taught, has been on the winning side; and the once-colonised, who have been writing in English for about the past forty years, have always had the moral rightness of their exploitedness, and the riches of their indigenous cultures, to fall back on. But for the story of the personal implications of national shame or guilt in English, one has to turn to a Japanese writer, Ishiguro, and to his mentors, the Japanese filmmakers; not the flamboyant Kurosawa, but the equally gifted Ozu.

Ishiguro’s first two novels were profoundly cinematic in their technique: the subtle shifts of light – the medium out of which, and into which, cinema is created – were interwoven deeply, in these novels, with their subject-matter. Even the title of the first novel, A Pale View of Hills, with its juxtaposition of ‘pale’ and ‘view’, used light to suggest both a visual and an emotional register. ‘It was with interest,’ Ishiguro writes towards the beginning of the novel,

that I listened to those women talking of Sachiko. I can recall quite vividly that afternoon at the tram stop. It was one of the first days of bright sunlight after the rainy season in June, and the soaked surfaces of brick and concrete were drying all around us. We were standing on a railway bridge and on one side of the tracks at the foot of the hill could be seen a cluster of roofs, as if the houses had come tumbling down the slope. Beyond the houses, a little way off, were our apartment blocks standing like four concrete pillars. I felt a kind of sympathy for Sachiko then, and felt I understood something of that aloofness I had noticed about her when I watched her from afar.

In its working and effect, this is fairly typical of the first two novels: light used to suggest movement where there is none (‘as if the houses had come tumbling down the slope’), indicating both the precariousness and preciousness of human habitation in bombed-out Nagasaki. The play of light and shade as the rainy season ends narrates, with great economy, the insecurity and uncertainties of a drifting Japanese urban population in the post-war years. And, in the last sentence, a purely visual sense of distance from a character, brought about as if by the lens of a camera, coincides with an odd but touching intrusion of closeness, kinship and ‘sympathy’.

In An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s most accomplished and moving book, and one of the best novels published in the Eighties, the cinematic effect is used with even greater sensitivity, leading to the creation of a world of subtle perceptual richness unsurpassed by either Ishiguro’s other work or the works of most of his contemporaries. Very near the start of the novel, the narrator Ono describes the house he lives in; it was designed by, and once belonged to, the eminent architect Akira Sugimura. In the following passage, one of his ageing daughters who had sold it to Ono revisits the house after the war; once more, the effect of light lies at the heart of the writing, and is used to convey loss and the passing of time:

The house had received its share of the war damage. Akira Sugimura had built an eastern wing to the house, comprising three large rooms, connected to the main body of the house by a long corridor running down one side of the garden. This corridor was so extravagant in its length that some people have suggested that Sugimura built it – together with the east wing – for his parents, whom he wished to keep at a distance. The corridor was, in any case, one of the most appealing features of the house; in the afternoon, its entire length would be crossed by the lights and shades of the foliage outside, so that one felt one was walking through a garden tunnel. The bulk of the bomb damage had been to this section of the house, and as we surveyed it from the garden I could see Miss Sugimura was close to tears. By this point, I had lost all my earlier sense of irritation with the old woman and I reassured her as best as I could that the damage would be repaired at the first opportunity, and the house would be once more as her father had built it.

In this novel Ishiguro developed to the fullest extent, yet at the same time obliquely and with great economy, what have turned out to be some of the central concerns of his other books: old age and the human capacity to survive disappointment and humiliation. Ono, in An Artist of the Floating World, represents the marginalisation of a set of political and cultural values which are no longer believed in by the new generation, and which are, indeed, considered disgraceful after the war. Ono’s consciousness thus becomes a series of hauntings of images and ideals from the past; simultaneously, he adopts a compensatory series of rhetorical ploys to erase or escape self-awareness, and salvage whatever dignity might be left to him. Age, then, is associated with self-deception and a circumlocutory evasiveness that is both escapist and curiously life-affirming, in that it helps the old to survive disappointments, to continue at once to fool and rejuvenate themselves in a way that the young possibly could not. Banal politeness, for Ishiguro’s characters, becomes a complex form of sympathy, a crutch for existence; at worst, as in The Unconsoled, it becomes a substitute for sympathy, an end in itself.

A notable feature of Ishiguro’s last two novels is the absence in them of compelling women characters; one of the things that most distinguishes the first two books is their depiction of female responsibility (and male irresponsibility). The woman as mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and breadwinner, the working woman who is still part of the decorousness and formality of the traditional family: all this reminded me of the working woman – the working mother and wife and daughter-in-law – in middle-class India.

In all the elements I have mentioned so far – the use of light, the exploration of old age, national guilt, women in relation to family and to work – Ozu, the maker of the superlative Tokyo Story and of its sequel Autumn Afternoon, among other films, seems to stand as a precursor behind Ishiguro’s first two books. In his films, Ozu, by and large, eschewed the close-up, keeping his figures in the middle distance, in relation to their surroundings – a room, a façade, a balcony. In Tokyo Story, an old couple who arrive in the city to visit their sons and daughters and their spouses are made, increasingly, to feel a burden on their children; the only kindness they get is from a daughter-in-law, widowed by the war and working in an office, who, towards the end of the film, seeing her parents-in-law in their particular plight, says something that might be a sort of motto for Ishiguro’s work so far: ‘Life is disappointing, isn’t it?’ The film ends with the parents returning to their town, the old woman dying, and the children gathering in the old house for her funeral. Both this film and Autumn Afternoon, in which the old man is a widower living with his daughter, are imbued with the sense of a war that has been lost, and of a family and a country in mourning and transition.

With The Remains of the Day, the third novel, the predominance of the image and the delicacy of the style that captures its complexity largely disappear; many of the former preoccupations and characteristics remain – old age, guilt, evasiveness of speech – but although, like The Unconsoled, this is a love story, the portraits of the female characters do not take us into fresh territory as they subtly did in the first two novels. Moreover, in The Remains of the Day, the houses and places which are so marvellous in the second novel – for instance, Ono’s house and the Migi-hidari bar, with lanterns and deepfry smells in its interior – have been replaced by Darlington Hall, a Kafkaesque building which is more a metaphor than a real place. The following passage from that novel bears remarkable similarities to the passage from An Artist of the Floating World, but one can see in it the germ of the dreamscape that entirely takes over the new novel:

As for Miss Kenton. I seem to remember the mounting tension of those days having a noticeable effect upon her. I recall, for instance, the occasion around that time I happened to encounter her in the back corridor. The back corridor, which serves as a sort of backbone to the staff’s quarters of Darlington Hall, was always a rather cheerless affair due to the lack of daylight penetrating its considerable length. Even on a fine day, the corridor could be so dark that the effect was like walking through a tunnel. On that particular occasion, had I not recognised Miss Kenton’s footsteps on the boards as she came towards me, I would have been able to identify her only from her outline.

This is less a description of an old British building, with its resonances of personal memory and history, than a Kafkaesque castle, a place to get lost in; the disturbing but unconscious repetition of ‘the back corridor’ is typical of the style of the new novel, and exemplifies the problems that both form the subject-matter and dog the writing of that book.

Although The Remains of the Day is not a particularly cinematic book, since in it the visual and perceptual are replaced by concepts – dignity, self-esteem, embarrassment, shame – it was made, perhaps unsurprisingly, into a very successful film. Today, film-makers and audiences are less interested in film as an independent visual medium or language, and more in (I use a current television word) ‘drama’; what we have witnessed, in the Eighties and Nineties is the annexation of cinema, in terms of technique and approach, by television, rather than the other way round. In an earlier age of film-making, An Artist of the Floating World might have seemed promising material to a director: in today’s climate, The Remains of the Day, with its muffled human drama, is probably the logical choice.

One of the main problems I had with The Remains of the Day was its treatment of the protagonist, the butler Stevens, and, by implication, the English class-system. The idea on which the novel is based is a highly interesting one: it is the story of someone who served a distinguished man whose political life and sympathies now appear discredited. But the peculiar pathos of the story does not quite fit, for it depends on Stevens’s identifying with his occupation – he is a butler – and with his employer in, dare one say, an almost Oriental way, a way more suggestive, in the novel, of the fixed, immemorial and metaphysical structure of caste, rather than the mildly profane, earthy, tragicomic interactions of the class-structure, embodied in the relations between servants and employers in, for instance, La Règle du jeu, Henry Green’s Loving, in Wodehouse’s writing or Upstairs, Downstairs.

In The Unconsoled, the themes of guilt and fear of humiliation persist, as do the means of negotiating them: excessive, insincere flattery, elisions, voluntary or involuntary amnesia. But it is a strangely ahistorical book, and in spite of the social decorum that both the prose and the characters obsessively attempt to maintain, it is a novel without any discernible cultural, social or historical determinants (surely fatal to any novel). Stevens, the butler, has multiplied here into several proto-selves: the almost imperturbable narrator, Ryder, and an array of socially subordinate characters such as the hotel manager, Hoffman, and the porter, Gustav, and his many friends. Butler, hotel manager, porter: all these, in turn, seem to go back to Kafka’s doorman, the official subordinate who, though seemingly insignificant, has the hidden power to postpone your access to your destiny, to keep you from entering the room you have been waiting to enter. But Kafka’s doorman also represents the face of European bureaucracy, part stunningly ordinary, part terrifying, part human; we’re not sure what the strange behaviour of Ishiguro’s porter represents.

The story is this: Ryder, a renowned pianist, arrives in an unnamed European town seemingly to give a performance. He puts up at a hotel, but is kept from sleeping for much of the night because of the constant requests, none of which he can refuse, from Hoffman and others. The entire town is suffering, it turns out, from collective shame and low self-esteem, a state of affairs mysteriously connected to the decline in the reputations and abilities of the local musicians. Everyone expects Ryder’s arrival and his recital to be a new beginning for the town, a moment of positive reappraisal. For Hoffman, organising the event, it is to be a peak in his life and career; for Hoffman’s son, Stephan, the event is to be an occasion to prove to himself, to others, and mainly to his parents, his own talents as a pianist; for Brodsky, once famous local musician, now famous local drunk, it will be an occasion to forsake drink and conduct the town orchestra, restoring his and the town’s reputation, and making himself worthy in the eyes of his beloved, Miss Collins. All these optimistic expectations are, in one way or another, belied.

The main action consists of a complicated but predictable back-and-forth dance involving Ryder and the other characters, each of whom has at least one absurd but urgent request to make of him. He cannot say ‘no’, however, and is thus delayed from honouring his many commitments in the town, most of them urgent but absurd. Ryder, we find out early on, has been to this town before, was once involved with the porter Gustav’s daughter, Sophie, and is possibly the father of Sophie’s son, Boris. All this he begins to recall or, rather, deduce as the story unravels; indeed, he seems to know little more of his past than we do – his knowledge is our knowledge. Often, he encounters friends from his childhood on his strolls; objects from his past – a family car, a rug – reappear at different points in the town. And however far away he goes on his tours through the town, he finds himself in a building which is just another wing of the hotel.

The echoes of Kafka are many, but eventually superficial. For one thing, the poetic fastidiousness of Kafka’s prose confounds binary oppositions of fantasy and reality; so that, even when describing so fantastic a thing as a human being turned into a giant insect, Kafka speaks of the ‘dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed-quilt could hardly keep in position’, an image that is defamiliarising both in its biological naturalism and in its domestic detail. Kafka points out that Gregor Samsa’s legs were now ‘pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk’. Ishiguro, although surely capable of this minuteness of observation, denies himself the joy of fidelity to detail; the world hardly impinges on his dreamscape, except as generalised settings and landmarks – a lake, a motorway, a theatre. Even music, which is supposed to be a central concern to most characters in the novel, seems marginal to the story.

Another feature of Kafka’s writing is its extraordinary social and cultural pitch; its exploration, not just of existential man alone in the universe, but of the life of the middle-class individual, and, especially in The Trial, of the European bourgeoisie in the early 20th century, with its crushing, illogically simultaneous emphasis on material success and old-world dignity and culture. In ‘The Metamorphosis’, Kafka uses music to define class and social position: Gregor’s sister’s violin-playing betokens the family’s desperate pretensions, with the violin a means of distinguishing oneself both from the desolation of the working class and the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. The lodgers’ growing boredom as they listen, and the image of Gregor, turned into an insect, hidden behind the door, the only one truly engrossed in the music, evoke, among other things, a profound nostalgia for one’s absolutely ordinary, but, to oneself, irreplaceable position in society. Food, too, is part of Kafka’s social exploration, and, in his list of what is appealing to Gregor’s appetite, Kafka gives us a parody of food as a social code. The list is both playful and painfully attentive, reminding us once more that the real ‘meta-morphosis’ in the story is the transformation of the stable and precious symbols of a middle-class world into something else: ‘There were old, half-decayed vegetables; bones from last night’s supper covered with a white sauce that had thickened; some raisins and almonds; a piece of cheese that Gregor would have called uneatable two days ago; a dry roll of bread, a buttered roll, and a roll buttered and salted.’ It is not that Kafka’s allegories represent the social: they are in complex ways informed and transformed by the social.

What is unKafkaesque about Ishiguro’s Kafkaesque novel is its refusal to allow its allegory to be engaged, in any lively way, with the social shape of our age. The themes of guilt and embarrassment have been exhausted in terms of Ishiguro’s own oeuvre. The language, as usual, is lucid, but completely lacks the delicacy that Ishiguro is capable of; the words ‘in fact’ occur on almost every page, sometimes more than once, but are used without variation in emotional register, in contrast to the way that Kelman, for instance, can use different conjugations of the f-word; one of the startling defects of the language of this novel is that, despite its repetitiveness, it fails to use repetition as an inventive artistic strategy. The only positive way of looking at this Kafkaesque work is as a sort of revenge on the increasingly intractable and Kafkaesque world of publishers and the publishing market (previously known as ‘readers’): the parallels between Ryder’s life as a musician the international circuit and Ishiguro’s as a successful author are obvious. The novel is a failure, and that itself is a brave and old-world thing to be in a time when the idea of artistic success and failure no longer really applies; when literary success, too often, is the product of carefully manipulated kitsch which is then cleverly marketed. Ishiguro’s novel is not kitsch, and it defies marketing; it is a failure, and failure usually implies the presence of artistic vision and talent.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences