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  • Ontology and Narrative Technique in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled
  • A. Harris Fairbanks

The Unconsoled (1995), Kazuo Ishiguro’s fourth novel, received decidedly mixed reviews at first, some reviewers declaring it a masterpiece, others a failure, but all agreeing that it is a deeply enigmatic work.1 The story is unmistakably dreamlike, but readers are puzzled about the ontological status of events narrated: is the narrator, Ryder, literally dreaming? Does he suffer from amnesia, dementia, or some other mental disability? Does he inhabit some alternate reality, and if so, of what sort? The explanations that Ishiguro himself has offered to interviewers address these questions but have failed to settle them unambiguously.

Critics have found it notoriously difficult to formulate even the most basic description of the plot without distorting it. Natalie Reitano, for instance, describes Ryder as “beset by an amnesia he barely acknowledges” (361), and Barry Lewis begins his plot description,

Ryder, an internationally acclaimed concert pianist, is the victim of an inexplicable amnesia. He arrives on a Tuesday at an unnamed town, somewhere in the heart of Europe, without a schedule. But this is not just another venue on his tour: it is the home of his partner, Sophie, and child, Boris, facts that have curiously slipped his mind.


But these descriptors require qualification. If Ryder is simply a victim of amnesia, why does Sophie’s father, Gustav, not recognize him? And if he has lived with Sophie in this town (and at one point he has vague memories of their apartment [283–84]), why is he known only by reputation to the musical elite of the town who have invited him to perform?

In the three-stage argument that follows, I first address what has been the major interpretive puzzle about this novel, namely the ontological status of its characters and events. In my view, the events are not those of a proper dream [End Page 603] to be related to some ulterior reality; rather, they belong to a world in which events and the main character’s psychological reactions operate as they do in a dream, but which is itself the ultimate reality. The second section discusses the narrative challenges of describing such a dreamworld and the techniques of “oneiric realism” which the author has devised to meet those challenges. The final section argues that in this narrative mode the concept of narratorial consistency and reliability as well as the moral responsibility of the characters must be reexamined and explains why this mode is particularly well suited to Ishiguro’s stated intentions in the novel.

Ontology in The Unconsoled

The dreamlike quality of The Unconsoled has naturally invited psychoanalytic interpretations. Since Freud, literature and film have created a genre of works whose plots include some act of detection involving the discovery of an amnesiac’s identity and personal history through the interpretation of dreams. Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound is a paradigm case: in this film Gregory Peck plays an amnesiac who has reason to believe that he has committed a murder; Ingrid Bergman is a psychiatrist who discovers by interpretation of one of his dreams that he is innocent and that he instead suffers from a guilt complex deriving from the repressed memory of a childhood accident that killed his brother. Her interpretation consists of identifying events in the amnesiac’s real life corresponding to their coded counterparts in the dream imagery and, on the basis of this encryption, diagnosing her patient’s psychological affliction.

Similarly, readers of The Unconsoled repeatedly search for some reality behind the dreamlike surface of the plot. An early reviewer says,

For as the tale progresses Mr. Ishiguro artfully points to the fact that alongside the dream-story of Ryder’s European sojourn exists another story, Ryder’s real story. While Ryder grapples with the complications of his schedule, Sophie and Boris, incidental characters—the daughter and grandson of the hotel porter—impinge on Ryder’s attention until it slowly becomes evident that they are not wholly unfamiliar to him, that they are, in fact, his wife and child.

(Allen A12)

Others are also drawn to such a reading but are less certain whether the novel will accommodate it. Brian...


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