Will Kit­son

Kazuo Ishig­uro and Per­cep­tions in the Parisian Sub­urbs

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Will Kit­son

Even the most hon­est and em­pir­i­cal of per­cep­tions can end up be­tray­ing us. That may be the sole thread that runs through every one of Kazuo Ishig­uro’s works. He is an au­thor who, while not pro­lific, cov­ers vast lit­er­ary ground: dystopia, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, fan­tasy – oc­ca­sion­ally fully em­brac­ing the sur­real. And yet there is an un­set­tling con­sis­tency through­out: a deep mis­trust be­tween the reader and the No­bel prize win­ner’s nov­els.

Trav­el­ling from Paris to Fon­tainebleau – one of France’s mar­quee château towns – I’m re­minded of how weird the French cap­i­tal’s sub­urbs can be. The train track hugs the river Seine for much of the jour­ney, and along­side there are fre­quent yet ar­bi­trary homes that bear all the mark­ings of a haunted house: the win­dows are ei­ther smashed in or boarded up; the cum­ber­some gar­dens are over­grown; and there is more-of­ten-than-not a rust­ing swingset eerily rock­ing in soli­tude.

It’s an ad-hoc trip that I’m tak­ing. A long week­end away from the city with a girl who I be­lieve I’m in love with but, in truth, I barely know. We’ve quickly fallen into a quixotic re­la­tion­ship of pas­sion and poor tim­ing. In a month, she leaves Europe for­ever, and in the mean­time, we’ve set about creat­ing our own re­al­ity, de­fi­ant of the facts and for­lorn na­ture of our sit­u­a­tion.

The girl is sleep­ing against my shoul­der while I read The Un­con­soled – pub­lished in 1995, it is one of Ishig­uro’s less cel­e­brated nov­els, one that in­del­i­cately treads the line be­tween dream and re­al­ity, a novel both crit­i­cised for in­vent­ing ‘its own cat­e­gory of bad­ness’ and quasi-praised for be­ing one of the ‘strangest nov­els in me­mory.’ In it, Ishig­uro’s pro­tag­o­nist and nar­ra­tor – the renowned pi­anist, Ry­der – ar­rives in a name­less, Euro­pean town to per­form a con­cert. Im­me­di­ately, he is dragged into the town’s

quo­tid­ian dra­mas. With each chap­ter, he shifts from visi­tor to res­i­dent, from out­sider to hus­band and fa­ther, all the while tack­ling per­for­mance anx­i­ety for the con­cert which he comes to un­der­stand as the most im­por­tant and chal­leng­ing of his dis­tin­guished ca­reer.

It is a book that has di­vided opin­ion. In­fa­mously com­plex and daunt­ingly dense, The Un­con­soled was Ishig­uro’s push-back against a lit­er­ary com­mu­nity that had praised him for be­ing the per­fect re­al­ist. The Re­mains of the Day had been pub­lished six years ear­lier. The novel had been a tri­umph – de­scribed as ‘an al­most per­fect book,’ ‘a pro­found and heartrend­ing study of per­son­al­ity, class and cul­ture;’ it won the Man Booker Prize and, four years af­ter publication, was adapted into a fea­ture film that was nom­i­nated for eight Academy Awards. But the ac­claimed novel had left Ishig­uro feel­ing un­ful­filled. He told one in­ter­viewer that it was an ‘over-per­fect novel,’ that it had been too easy. The Un­con­soled was Ishig­uro’s chance to break free of that, to ‘pro­duce some­thing strange and weird,’ as he put it.

And weird is ex­actly what Ishig­uro pro­duced. But not in a con­trived way. The weird­ness of The Un­con­soled is all about its re­la­tion­ship with its au­di­ence. The reader is never given the chance to set­tle into the nar­ra­tive. Strangers morph into fam­ily mem­bers; ge­og­ra­phy switches from chap­ter to chap­ter; speeches are de­liv­ered in full-frontal nu­dity to an ap­par­ently un­miffed au­di­ence.

Most con­fus­ingly of all, the nar­ra­tor – nor­mally an act­ing tour guide in an au­thor’s imag­ined world – is a will­ing par­tic­i­pant in Ishig­uro’s sur­re­al­ist web. Ry­der is con­stantly putting his con­fu­sion down to fa­tigue or sim­ply go­ing along with it, as if he is un­con­cerned by the strange, un­fa­mil­iar laws of the world – the de­tails of which are for­ever with­held from the reader.

But these strange nar­ra­tive uncer­tain­ties don’t irk me. In­stead, I find them weirdly com­pelling. It’s like drunk­enly stum­bling into a se­ries of dead­ends, all the while be­com­ing more res­o­lute that you’ll even­tu­ally find your way to your des­ti­na­tion. As I travel fur­ther from the heart of Paris into

the forests of sub­ur­bia, ap­proach­ing Fon­tainebleau, I delve deeper into the novel and be­come in­creas­ingly pulled in.

Ry­der’s nerves be­gin to reach crit­i­cal lev­els, and the town’s mood is be­com­ing tenser as the con­cert draws near: the nar­ra­tor fran­ti­cally searches for a pi­ano on which to prac­tise; the town’s in­fa­mous res­i­dent com­poser, Brod­sky, strug­gles with al­co­holism and the death of his dog; and the ho­tel manager, Hoff­man, at­tempts to re­solve the long­stand­ing is­sues of his mar­riage.

But it’s not the tan­gled web of sub-plots that makes The Un­con­soled com­plex. It’s the strange flex­i­bil­ity of the nar­ra­tive. Ry­der shares with the reader over­heard con­ver­sa­tions – through brick walls and closed doors – that he has no right to hear; the first-per­son tale in­fil­trates the thoughts, feel­ings and per­sonal his­to­ries of char­ac­ters other than our hero. In this sense, it’s rem­i­nis­cent of Mod­ernism’s stream of con­scious­ness; but rather than try to re­flect the in­ner-work­ings of a hu­man mind, it places them at odds with the world in which the char­ac­ters in­habit.

This isn’t the only in­stance where Ishig­uro has played these tricks with his au­di­ence. Through­out his canon, he con­stantly sows the seed of doubt, lac­ing nar­ra­tives with bla­tant in­con­sis­ten­cies that force the reader to ques­tion what they’re sup­posed to be­lieve. For in­stance, the but­ler, Stevens, of The Re­mains of the Day is largely por­trayed as a stoic, hum­ble ser­vant; and only in the lat­ter half of the novel do ego­tis­ti­cal cracks ap­pear in his af­fa­ble per­sona. Like­wise, in An Artist of the Float­ing World, it is sug­gested that the pro­tag­o­nist, Ma­suji, was a widely cel­e­brated artist un­til his ca­reer was dogged by the pro­pa­ganda around WWII, only for a se­ries of events to im­ply that his rep­u­ta­tion never was any­where near that to which he has led the reader to be­lieve.

Re­gard­less of the genre Ishig­uro is tack­ling, he rarely al­lows his read­ers an un­equiv­o­cal, ob­jec­tive view into his lit­er­ary uni­verses. And this is tes­ta­ment to his acute scru­tiny of the world around us. Per­cep­tions are sub­jec­tive and they change: new in­sights and information can dis­rupt our

view of a per­son or a sit­u­a­tion. Within this para­dox­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, there is an un­erring re­flec­tion of the strange­ness of re­al­ity.

Ar­riv­ing in Fon­tainebleau, I feel my own story mir­rors tropes of Ry­der’s, and those of Ishig­uro’s typ­i­cal style. The peo­ple we meet – in restau­rants, bars and the ho­tel – are too pol­ished and ar­che­typal to be be­liev­able, as if they’re ac­tors who have been re­hears­ing for our ar­rival; even my part­ner and I ex­hibit a dot­ing­ness to­ward one an­other disin­gen­u­ous to re­al­ity, pre­tend­ing as though ro­man­tic trips such as this one are usual and it­er­a­tive.

As for the town of Fon­tainebleau, it is a sort of homage to hypno­gogia, the brick and mor­tar ful­fil­ment of a dream, that en­cour­ages one to step out­side of their own re­al­ity. Its only re­mark­able fea­ture is its château, which is ex­ces­sive and ostentatious in the ex­treme. Its gilded cor­ri­dors are laced with finer­ies, and its vast, or­dered grounds are lit­tered with foun­tains and lakes. Other than that, the town con­sists of just a ba­nau­sic high-street that cul­mi­nates in a hand­ful of bars and a creepy carousel that gen­tly turns au­tonomously in the wind.

Wan­der­ing be­tween these two ex­tremes of ab­surd riches and ba­nal­ity – my part­ner linked dream­ily in my arm – I find my­self sym­pa­this­ing with Ry­der. I, too, fight the temp­ta­tion to re­sist the strange im­pos­si­bil­ity of my sur­round­ings, of my sit­u­a­tion; but the pull to­ward com­fort­able ac­cep­tance – to ac­qui­esc­ing to a smor­gas­bord of events that could only ex­ist in that mo­ment – is too great, and I be­gin blissfully drift­ing into the sur­real.

Ret­ro­spec­tively, it would be im­pos­si­ble not to won­der whether my ex­pe­ri­ence was causal or co­in­ci­dence. Did Ishig­uro’s story re­ally im­pact my re­al­ity and cause me to be­lieve that Ry­der and I were on par­al­lel nar­ra­tive arcs, or was it just that I per­ceived (or per­haps even looked for) sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween my own jour­ney and that of The Un­con­soled? Ul­ti­mately, it hardly mat­tered. Like Ry­der’s, my story fol­lowed its own ra­tio­nale, one that, if held un­der an ob­jec­tive lens, could eas­ily be un­picked.

Like most of Ishig­uro’s works, The Un­con­soled ends on an atonal note:

we never wit­ness Ry­der’s con­cert, we never un­pick the com­plex­i­ties of his world. The only con­clu­sory note is that Ry­der fi­nally seems set­tled, and it’s as if the dreamy, ubiq­ui­tous fog is be­ing lifted. Leav­ing Fon­tainebleau, and sub­se­quently the girl whom I’d briefly cared so deeply for, was a sim­i­larly sober­ing mo­ment: fa­mil­iar re­al­ity was pulling me back, and what had seemed so con­crete was quickly be­com­ing a hazy me­mory.

Look­ing back, it feels like an al­most ab­surd burst of un­truth that cre­ated the am­biance of my time in Fon­tainebleau, like re­mem­ber­ing a dream the morn­ing af­ter. And just as Ishig­uro cre­ates mis­trust be­tween his reader and his nov­els, there is a sim­i­lar mis­trust be­tween my­self and my mem­o­ries. In re­belling against the ‘over-per­fect book’ of The Re­mains of the Day, Ishig­uro cre­ated an overly im­per­fect one with The Un­con­soled. But as I came to re­alise, the line be­tween per­fect and im­per­fect is a blurry one, as is the line be­tween fic­tion and re­al­ity, be­tween truth and un­truth.

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