Kazuo Ishiguro and Perceptions in the Parisian Suburbs
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.