Margaret Forster

True to Himself, but Exhausting for Others

The Unconsoled


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Nothing is more irritating for novelists than the expectation of the public that they will remain true to previous form in every way. Publishers in particular are keen on consistency. There is always great in-house consternation when novelists who have built up a following and become profitable with one kind of novel suddenly produce a quite different sort. The usual fans will be alienated and new ones hard to attract. It is those novelists who go on delivering the same goods successfully who are most prized by publishers, and also, to a certain extent, by readers. Everyone knows where they are with, for example, the excellent Anita Brookner – no danger there that she’s suddenly going to go berserk and start turning out, say, magic realism.

If all this sounds horribly like some kind of warning, then that is exactly right. This new novel of Ishiguro’s is the perfect example of a writer apparently chucking everything he is known and valued for out of the window and to hell with the consequences. He has written what he wants to write, what he felt he had to write and if the result is not what his readers are used to from his pen, then that is just too bad – his duty, after all, is to himself alone. He has published nothing since 1989, when he won the Booker prize with the poignant and witty Remains of the Day. It was a hugely popular winner, combining as it did obvious literary merit with accessibility. Like his two previous novels, this one was easy to read, its deceptive simplicity masking great subtlety and perception. No reader could complain that they could not understand Ishiguro or enjoy his work.

Gone. All gone. The ease, the pleasure, the effortless eloquence. This novel is, literally, an account of a nightmare. Not the sort of nightmare full of blood and murder but the other sort, the sort that more frequently plagues our sleep. It is the kind of nightmare in which all night long we walk corridors, open doors, climb never-ending staircases, enter forests and woods – it is all here. A Mr Ryder, a musician newly arrived at a hotel in a strange city where he is to perform at a concert, is the one experiencing the nightmare. He never knows where he is going or what exactly he has to do. Time is confused, as it always is in dreams, and so is memory. People who seem to know him constantly appear and it is only gradually that he works out their significance. Feelings of bewilderment and inadequacy permanently overwhelm him and produce in him an intolerable sense of strain and even terror, all of which is certainly well conveyed.

He is told he has not only been long awaited in this city but that he has come to save it in some way. He is to give a speech as well as play the piano, but he doesn’t know what about. Strange things happen and are thought by-others to be unremarkable. He goes to the cinema with a woman who turns out to be, if not his wife, then his mistress, and when he goes to buy her a choc-ice the girl selling them has in the middle of her tray a battered book. She gives him the kind of crazy explanation for its presence that people always do in nightmares. More bizarre things happen. Telephone boxes appear in forests, a car wreck turns out to be of a family car last seen thirty years ago in England. He observes weird scenes without understanding them, such as a dance performed by hotel porters carrying incredibly heavy suitcases. A man has his leg amputated (but it turns out to have been wooden) and then uses as a crutch an ironing board that keeps opening and closing …

Curiouser and curiouser, but what is most curious of all is how all this is written. There is nothing whatsoever fanciful about either the style or the language. Both are flat. Nothing flows. There are many exceedingly long monologues in which various characters give their past history or chart their emotional state. Mr Ryder finds these tedious to listen to but rarely interrupts or comments. There is a good deal of dialogue, but it is so stilted that it is obvious it was never intended to be real. Everything is deliberately mannered and kept obscure.

Mr Ryder himself is constantly trying to make sense of this obscurity. He is nervous and apprehensive about the approaching concert and the speech required of him. He is told the city is close to crisis, that there is widespread misery, that a terrible era is over but a new, better one has not yet begun and that somehow everyone’s hope is invested in him. The soul of the city, he is informed, is not so much sick as dead and h must resurrect it. His crushing sense of responsibility is heightened by the news that his aged parents are about to arrive and, as the nightmare reaches its climax (the concert, supposedly), his panic almost destroys him.

So what is all this? Is everything symbolic? There is frequent mention of a wall cutting off part of the city – aha! Is this the Berlin Wall? Too obvious. Or are we in the land of fable and this has nothing to do with real walls? Is it about the human heart and how Mr Ryder cuts off his emotions and cannot love anyone properly? Maybe not. Those who relish this kind of thing will have great fun triumphantly flourishing their solutions and announcing that the significance of this and that is obvious. As an allegory, or a metaphor of god-knows-what, this novel may well be brilliant but as a reading experience it is exhausting and daunting. I applaud and endorse Ishiguro’s right to write what he wants but only hope next time he wants something I can share.

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