The setting is a nameless Central European city where Ryder, a renowned pianist, has come to give the most important performance of his life. Instead, he finds himself diverted on a series of cryptic and infuriating errands that nevertheless provide him with vital clues to his own past. In The Unconsoled Ishiguro creates a work that is itself a virtuoso performance, strange, haunting, and resonant with humanity and wit.
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The taxi driver seemed embarrassed to find there was no one-not even a clerk behind the reception desk-waiting to welcome me. He wandered across the deserted lobby, perhaps hoping to discover a staff member concealed behind one of the plants or armchairs. Eventually he put my suitcases down beside the elevator doors and, mumbling some excuse, took his leave of me.
The lobby was reasonably spacious, allowing several coffee tables to be spread around it with no sense of crowding. But the ceiling was low and had a definite sag, creating a slightly claustrophobic mood, and despite the sunshine outside the light was gloomy. Only near the reception desk was there a bright streak of sun on the wall, illuminating an area of dark wood panelling and a rack of magazines in German, French and English. I could see also a small silver bell on the reception desk and was about to go over to shake it when a door opened somewhere behind me and a young man in uniform appeared.
'Good afternoon, sir,' he said tiredly and, going behind the reception desk, began the registration procedures. Although he did mumble an apology for his absence, his manner remained for a time distinctly off-hand. As soon as I mentioned my name, however, he gave a start and straightened himself.
'Mr Ryder, I'm so sorry I didn't recognise you. Mr Hoffman, the manager, he was very much wanting to welcome you personally. But just now, unfortunately, he's had to go to an important meeting.'
'That's perfectly all right. I'll look forward to meeting him later on.'
The desk clerk hurried on through the registration forms, all the while muttering about how annoyed the manager would be to have missed my arrival. He twice mentioned how the preparations for 'Thursday night' were putting the latter under unusual pressure, keeping him away from the hotel far more than was usual. I simply nodded, unable to summon the energy to enquire into the precise nature of 'Thursday night'.
'Oh, and Mr Brodsky's been doing splendidly today,' the desk clerk said, brightening. 'Really splendidly. This morning he rehearsed that orchestra for four hours non-stop. And listen to him now! Still hard at it, working things out by himself.'
He indicated the rear of the lobby. Only then did I become aware that a piano was being played somewhere in the building, just audible above the muffled noise of the traffic outside. I raised my head and listened more closely. Someone was playing a single short phrase-it was from the second movement of Mullery's Verticality-over and over in a slow, preoccupied manner.
'Of course, if the manager were here,' the desk clerk was saying, 'he might well have brought Mr Brodsky out to meet you. But I'm not sure . . .' He gave a laugh. 'I'm not sure if I should disturb him. You see, if he's deep in concentration . . .'
'Of course, of course. Another time.'
'If the manager were here . . .' He trailed off and laughed again. Then leaning forward, he said in a low voice: 'Do you know, sir, some guests have had the nerve to complain? About our closing off the drawing room like this each time Mr Brodsky requires the piano? It's amazing how some people think! Two different guests actually complained to Mr Hoffman yesterday You can be sure, they were very quickly put in their place.'
'I'm sure they were. Brodsky, you say.' I thought about the name, but it meant nothing to me. Then I caught the desk clerk watching me with a puzzled look and said quickly: 'Yes, yes. I'll look forward to meeting Mr Brodsky in good time.'
'If only the manager were here, sir.'
'Please don't worry. Now if that's all, I'd very much appreciate . . .'
'Of course, sir. You must be very tired after such a long journey. Here's your key. Gustav over there will show you to your room.'
I looked behind me and saw that an elderly porter was waiting across the lobby. He was standing in front of the open elevator, staring into its interior with a preoccupied air. He gave a start as I came walking up to him. He then picked up my suitcases and hurried into the elevator after me.
As we began our ascent, the elderly porter continued to hold on to both suitcases and I could see him growing red with the effort. The cases were both very heavy and a serious concern that he might pass out before me led me to say:
'You know, you really ought to put those down.'
'I'm glad you mention it, sir,' he said, and his voice betrayed surprisingly little of the physical effort he was expending. 'When I first started in this profession, very many years ago now, I used to place the bags on the floor. Pick them up only when I absolutely needed to. When in motion, so to speak. In fact, for the first fifteen years of working here, I have to say I used that method. It's one that many of the younger porters in this town still employ. But you won't find me doing anything of that sort now. Besides, sir, we're not going up far.'
We continued our ascent in silence. Then I said:
'So you've worked in this hotel for some time.'
'Twenty-seven years now, sir. I've seen plenty here in that time. But of course, this hotel was standing long before I ever got here. Frederick the Great is believed to have stayed a night here in the eighteenth century, and by all accounts it was a long-established inn even then. Oh yes, there have been events here of great historic interest over the years. Some time when you're not so tired, sir, I'd be happy to relate a few of these things to you.'
'But you were telling me,' I said, 'why you consider it a mistake to place luggage on the floor.'
'Ah yes,' the porter said. 'Now that's an interesting point. You see, sir, as you can imagine, in a town of this sort, there are many hotels. This means that many people in this town have at some point or other tried their hand at portering. Many people here seem to think they can simply put on a uniform and then that will be it, they'll be able to do the job. It's a delusion that's been particularly nurtured in this town. Call it a local myth, if you will. And I'll readily confess, there was a time when I unthinkingly subscribed to it myself. Then once-oh, it was many years ago now-my wife and I took a short holiday We went to Switzerland, to Lucerne. My wife has passed away now, sir, but whenever I think of her I remember our short holiday. It's very beautiful there by the lake. No doubt you know it. We took some lovely boat rides after breakfast. Well, to return to my point, during that holiday I observed that people in that town didn't make the same sorts of assumptions about their porters as people here do. How can I put it, sir? There was much greater respect paid to porters there. The best ones were figures of some renown and had the leading hotels fighting for their services. I must say it opened my eyes. But in this town, well, there's been this idea for many many years. In fact there are days when I wonder if it can ever be eradicated. Now I'm not saying people here are in any way rude to us. Far from it, I've always been treated with politeness and consideration here. But, you see, sir, there's always this idea that anyone could do this job if they took it into their heads, if the fancy just took them. I suppose it's because everyone in this town at some point has had the experience of carrying luggage from place to place. Because they've done that, they assume being a hotel porter is just an extension of it. I've had people over the years, sir, in this very elevator, who've said to me: "I might give up what I'm doing one of these days and take up portering." Oh yes. Well, sir, one day-it wasn't long after our short holiday in Lucerne-I had one of our leading city councillors say more or less those exact words to me. "I'd like to do that one of these days," he said to me, indicating the bags. "That's the life for me. Not a care in the world." I suppose he was trying to be kind, sir. Implying I was to be envied. That was when I was younger, sir, I didn't then hold the bags, I had them on the floor, here in this very elevator, and I suppose in those days I might have looked a bit that way. You know, carefree, as the gentleman implied. Well, I tell you, sir, that was the last straw. I don't mean the gentleman's words made me so angry in themselves. But when he said that to me, well, things sort of fell into place. Things I'd been thinking about for some time. And as I explained to you, sir, I was fresh from our short holiday in Lucerne where I'd got some perspective. And I thought to myself, well, it's high time porters in this town set about changing the attitude prevalent here. You see, sir, I'd seen something different in Lucerne, and I felt, well, it really wasn't good enough, what went on here. So I thought hard about it and decided on a number of measures I would personally take. Of course, even then, I probably knew how difficult it would be. I think I may have realised all those years ago that it was perhaps already too late for my own generation. That things had gone too far. But I thought, well, even if I could do my part and change things just a little, it would at least make it easier for those who came after me. So I adopted my measures, sir, and I've stuck to them, ever since that day the city councillor said what he did. And I'm proud to say a number of other porters in this town followed my lead. That's not to say they adopted precisely the same measures I did. But let's say their measures were, well, compatible.'
'I see. And one of your measures was not to put down the suitcases but to continue to hold them.'
'Exactly, sir, you've followed my gist very well. Of course, I have to say, when I took on these rules for myself, I was much younger and stronger, and I suppose I didn't really calculate for my growing weaker with age. It's funny, sir, but you don't. The other porters have said similar things. All the same, we all try to keep to our old resolutions. We've become a pretty close-knit group over the years, twelve of us, we're what's left of the ones who tried to change things all those years ago. If I were to go back on anything now, sir, I'd feel I was letting down the others. And if any of them were to go back on any of their old rules, I'd feel the same way. Because there's no doubt about it, some progress has been made in this town. There's a very long way to go yet, that's true, but we've often talked it over-we meet every Sunday afternoon at the HungarianCafé in the Old Town, you could come and join us, you'd be a most welcome guest, sir-well, we've often discussed these things and each of us agrees, without a doubt, there have been significant improvements in the attitude towards us in this town. The younger ones who came after us, of course, they take it all for granted. But our group at the Hungarian Caf?, we know we've made a difference, even if it's a small one. You'd be very welcome to join us, sir. I would happily introduce you to the group. We're not nearly as formal as we once were and it's been understood for some time that in special circumstances, guests can be introduced to our table. And it's very pleasant at this time of the year with this gentle sunshine in the afternoons. We have our table in the shade of the awning, looking across the Old Square. It's very pleasant, sir, I'm sure you'll like it. But to return to what I was saying, we've been discussing this topic a lot at the Hungarian Caf?. I mean about these old resolutions we each made all those years ago. You see, none of us thought about what would happen when we got older. I suppose we were so involved in our work, we thought of things only on a day to day basis. Or perhaps we underestimated how long it would take to change these deeply ingrained attitudes. But there you are, sir. I'm now the age I am and every year it gets harder.'
The porter paused for a moment and, despite the physical strain he was under, seemed to get lost in his thoughts. Then he said:
'I should be honest with you, sir. It's only fair. When I was younger, when I first made these rules for myself, I would always carry up to three suitcases, however large or heavy. If a guest had a fourth, I'd put that one on the floor. But three, I could always manage. Well, the truth is, sir, four years ago I had a period of ill-health, and I was finding things difficult, and so we discussed it at the Hungarian Caf?. Well, in the end, my colleagues all agreed there was no need for me to be so strict on myself. After all, they said to me, all that's required is to impress on the guests something of the true nature of our work. Two bags or three, the effect would be much the same. I should reduce my minimum to two suitcases and no harm would be done. I accepted what they said, sir, but I know it's not quite the truth. I can see it doesn't have nearly the same effect when people look at me. The difference between seeing a porter laden with two bags and seeing one laden with three, you must admit, sir, even to the least practised eye, the effect is considerably different. I know that, sir, and I don't mind telling you it's painful for me to accept. But just to return to my point. I hope you see now why I don't wish to put down your bags. You have only two. At least for a few more years, two will be within my powers.'
'Well, it's all very commendable,' I said. 'You've certainly created the desired impact on me.'
'I'd like you to know, sir, I'm not the only one who's had to make changes. We discuss these things all the time at the HungarianCafé and the truth is, each one of us has had to make some changes. But I wouldn't have you think we're allowing each other's standards to slip. If we did that, all our efforts over these years would be for nothing. We would rapidly become a laughing stock. Passers-by would mock us when they saw us gathered at our table on Sunday afternoons. Oh no, sir, we remain very strict with each other and, as I'm sure Miss Hilde will vouch, the community has come to respect our Sunday gatherings. As I say, sir, you'd be most welcome to join us. Both theCafé and the square are exceptionally pleasant on these sunny afternoons. And sometimes theCafé proprietor will arrange for gypsy violinists to play in the square. The proprietor himself, sir, has the greatest respect for us. TheCafé isn't large, but he'll always ensure there's plenty of room for us to sit around our table in comfort. Even when the rest of theCafé is extremely busy, the proprietor will see to it we don't get crowded out or disturbed. Even on the busiest afternoons, if all of us around our table at one and the same time were to rotate our arms at full stretch, not one of us would make contact. That's how much the proprietor respects us, sir. I'm sure Miss Hilde will vouch for what I'm saying.'
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, author biography, and bibliography that follow are meant to enhance your group's reading of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at- and talking about- this mysterious and infinitely provocative new novel from the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day.
1. One of the first things we learn about this novel's protagonist is that he is at least partly amnesiac. What role does Ryder's amnesia play in The Unconsoled? How does it determine his behavior? Why doesn't he ask other characters to fill in the gaps in his memory, and what complications arise from this?
2. In the course of the novel, Ryder gradually recovers part of his memory. When and how does this happen? How is Ryder changed by the restoration of his memory? Does he want to remember? The recollection of a forgotten past plays an important role in classical Greek tragedies, such as in Sophocles's Oedipus, where it is called anagnoresis. In what ways does Ryder resemble- or differ from- classical tragic heroes?
3. If Ryder is amnesiac, he is also occasionally omniscient. While riding with Stephan Hoffman, for example, Ryder vicariously recalls an incident in which the young man disappointed his mother [pp. 65-71]. Later he seems to read the minds of both Miss Collins [pp. 320-327] and her former husband Leo Brodsky [pp. 359-361] as each recalls the origins of their marital rupture. What are we to make of Ryder's moments of omniscience? Why do the other characters seem unsurprised by his powers? How is Ryder's preternatural grasp of other people's pasts related to his inability to remember his own?
4. From the moment of his arrival, Ryder discovers that other people, many of them perfect strangers, know a great deal about him. What might account for these characters' familiarity with Ryder's affairs? Is the knowledge these characters possess about Ryder actually trustworthy?
5. With its narrow streets, gemütlich Old Town, and officious, Teutonically named citizens, the town in which Ryder finds himself might be any small city in Germany or Austria. Yet at times it also resembles- or actually becomes- the England where Ryder grew up. Then, too, space and time in this setting are oddly distorted. A broom closet opens onto the kitchen of a restaurant that should be miles away; journeys that seem to take hours last only a few moments. Why might Ishiguro have chosen to make his setting both realistic and surreal? Does the book's hybrid environment have a counterpart in its narrative or style? Are there moments when the novel's characters behave logically and others when they act more like figures in a dream?
6. Why does the porter insist on carrying more bags than he can comfortably handle [pp. 5-8], an insistence that is ritually enacted in the dance that eventually kills him [pp. 396-407, 421-425, 525-527]? What other characters in this novel take on onerous burdens? For what reasons and with what results?
7. Gustav asks Ryder to act as a go-between between him and his daughter Sophie, with whom he maintains a cordial but utterly silent relationship [pp. 27-30]. What are the origins of their silence? Where else in The Unconsoled do we encounter families whose members have ceased to communicate? How do the characters in this book justify their silence toward people they claim to love? Has Ryder done the same thing? And has he, too, been a victim of other people's silence?
8. Gustav is only the first person in this novel to ask something of its protagonist. What kinds of things is Ryder asked to do? Which of these requests has any relation to Ryder's actual abilities? Why does he keep agreeing to them? At what points in the book does he refuse a request, and with what outcome?
9. Ryder's attempt at defending Fiona Roberts before her snobbish neighbors fails when Ryder is unable to speak [pp. 228-241]. On the other hand, his appearance at the bizarre memorial for Brodsky's dog [pp. 135-147] should be a fiasco, since Ryder accidentally exposes himself before the guests, yet is received with enthusiasm [p. 155]. How successful is Ryder at meeting other people's expectations? Does Ryder succeed at his largest task, the rehabilitation of Brodsky and the redemption of the city? What factors account for Ryder's failures, as well as for his hosts' habit of perceiving those failures as triumphs?
10. Underlying all these disparate demands, Ryder intuits a greater, collective one: that he somehow bring order to a "situation" teetering on the edge of chaos and rescue the city from its unspecified crisis. Are Ryder's perceptions accurate? Is this artist really supposed to be a savior? Or is it equally possible that Ryder is merely inflating the normal demands made on celebrities into a megalomaniac mission of salvation?
11. What sort of requests do Sophie and Boris make of Ryder? How does he respond? Why is he so angry at Sophie, whom he inwardly accuses of bringing "chaos" into his life [pp. 179, 243, 289]? What happens on those occasions when he tries to show affection to the little boy? How has Ryder's behavior affected these characters?
12. Both Ryder and Sophie repeatedly disappoint each other. Sophie is always apologizing for her failure to find a new home [pp. 34, 224]. Ryder is continually justifying his absences [pp. 37, 258, 444]. Toward the novel's climax, even Boris is apologizing. What other characters in this book have disappointed the people closest to them? How do they treat their trespasses and the failures of their spouses, parents, and children? Is any of them an accurate judge of his or her own conduct? And does any of Ishiguro's characters make an honest attempt to redeem the emotional damage that he or she has done?
13. Boris is obsessed with a toy soccer player called Number Nine [pp. 40-42, 162, 206-216]. Ryder, too, is preoccupied with football players [pp. 161-162] and as a child used to play with toy soldiers [pp. 34, 261]. In what other ways do these two resemble each other, and how does this resemblance become more pronounced as the novel progresses? In what ways is Boris's childhood a reprise of what we know of Ryder's?
14. From the moment of his arrival, Ryder finds bits of England intruding into the landscape. His hotel room turns out to be a room from his childhood. Elsewhere he comes across his parents' car and his former friends Saunders, Parkhurst, and Fiona Roberts. How does Ryder feel about the apparitions from his past? How is he changed by his encounters with them? How do these episodes in turn change the reader's perception of the protagonist? What, in particular, do we learn about Ryder's parents, whose arrival in town is eagerly anticipated throughout the book?
15. None of Ryder's hosts is more solicitous than Hoffman. He fawns over the pianist elaborately and is so fearful that Ryder's room may be inadequate that he not only moves him to better quarters but has the old ones demolished [pp. 120-122, 156]. Yet behind the obsequiousness is a hint of menace. Hoffman becomes enraged by Ryder's failure to look at his wife's albums [pp. 503-505]. And he is equally capable of rehabilitating the ruined Brodsky [pp. 56-60] and of ruining him once more when it suits his purposes [pp. 427-441]. How should we interpret the inconsistencies in this man's behavior? Is Hoffman's rage related to the guilt he feels toward his wife? What other characters in this novel are similarly divided, publicly composed while inwardly seething? Does Ishiguro suggest any collective origin for this split? How is this schism reflected in the novel's language?
16. In the course of his movements, Ryder meets three other musicians. One, Stephan Hoffman, has yet to prove himself but is inwardly convinced of his mediocrity. Another, Christoff, was once revered by the townspeople but has now fallen into disfavor. A third, Brodsky, is a drunken wreck who has been dredged from the gutter and is now being touted as the town's salvation. Which of these musicians may be said to be a genuine artist, and how is his art received? In what ways does Ryder resemble each of them, and which of them is he most afraid of resembling?
17. What is the significance of Brodsky's wound? Is he just referring to his missing leg or to an older and more grievous injury? What other characters are similarly wounded? Is Brodsky correct in seeing both music and love as mere "consolations" for unhealed injuries [p. 313]? How do Ryder's ideas about music correspond to Brodsky's?
18. Although Brodsky initially seems pathetic, he gradually rises to a stature that is at once tragic and heroic. Of all the novel's characters, only he is capable of expressing tenderness and desire directly (and even obscenely). Yet by the novel's end he has collapsed into drunkenness once more, and his estranged wife has accused him of ruining both their lives: "You'd destroy it all, you'd destroy everything, pull it all down around you just as you did before. And all because of that wound. Me, the music, we're neither of us anything more to you than mistresses you seek consolation from. You'll always go back to your one real love. To that wound!" [p. 498]. Do we agree with her? If hers are the truest words spoken in this novel, how are we meant to judge not only Brodsky, but all the other characters who have devoted their lives to high culture? Is the town's artistic obsession genuine? Has art been the cure for these people's soul-sickness or its cause?
19. What changes take place in the course of this novel? How is the Ryder of the novel's end different from the one who strode confidently into the hotel at its beginning? Which of the book's other characters have been transformed? How does The Unconsoled change the perceptions of the reader?
20. Why might Kazuo Ishiguro have made this book's protagonist a man who cannot remember? What does he achieve by making Ryder both a limited first-person narrator and an omniscient third-person narrator? To what extent can we trust this man's perceptions? What role does the resulting uncertainty play in our experience of the book as a whole?
21. Is it possible to read The Unconsoled as Ryder's dream? If so, how does the author succeed in turning the notoriously idiosyncratic material of dreams into something universal?