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ELH 68.4 (2001) 1049-1076

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Ishiguro's Floating Worlds

Rebecca L. Walkowitz

Great literature is written in a sort of foreign tongue. To each sentence we attach a meaning, or at any rate a mental image, which is often a mistranslation. But in great literature all our mistranslations result in beauty.

--Marcel Proust, Contre Saint-Beuve

It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.

--Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands

That mistranslated or missing information might add to rather than diminish a novel's effect is an insight common to modern stylists as different as, say, Marcel Proust and Salman Rushdie. Indeed, Henry James built his late work on the foundation of absent narrative and envisioned his task as the evocation of insufficient representation: he hoped to convey to his readers the sense of "ever so many more of the shining silver fish afloat in the deep sea of one's endeavour than the net of widest casting could pretend to gather in." 1 For James, the floating world was the condition to which fiction aspired.

Kazuo Ishiguro's novels dare us to read indirect style as cultural content: his strategies of description and narration seem to imitate the characteristics of the place and people represented. Ishiguro's narrative styles evoke national attributes, whose recognition among readers tends to situate his texts within particular cultural traditions: this is true for the apparent Englishness of When We Were Orphans (2000) and The Remains of the Day (1989), and for the apparent Japaneseness of An Artist of the Floating World (1986) and A Pale View of Hills (1982). In Ishiguro's fourth novel, The Unconsoled (1995), the pattern continues, except that the strange, digressive plot of the novel corresponds not to a narrator's specific location, but to his lack of location altogether. The narrator of The Unconsoled is one Mr. Ryder, whose name impersonates the text's metaphorical detours, its Symbolist logic, its continuous interruptions and departures. [End Page 1049] Ryder is a man always on his way somewhere else. In Ishiguro's story, he is an acclaimed pianist who arrives in an unnamed European city for a single performance. The inhabitants of the city, full of individual and collective anxieties, are hoping that Ryder will bring both public and private consolation. The event is the occasion of Ryder's visit, it is the climax of the story, and it is a scene the reader ultimately does not see. Ishiguro withholds this scene, he neither narrates nor describes it, and in its place he records the prodigious expectation that the performance has generated throughout.

What we miss most in The Unconsoled--that is, what we notice--arrives in the absence of certainty and in the security the novel fails to bring. As for Ryder, his consolation is also elsewhere: on a bus at the end of the novel, already planning his next performance in another city, he imagines a leavetaking full of the sympathy he neither found nor gave in the community he departs. 2 Sympathy is possible only as potential encounter, as nostalgia for a connection that did not take place. In each of Ishiguro's novels, there is a turn away from pivotal and traumatic episodes, whether historical events, such as atomic devastation in Nagasaki, or private betrayals, or the lack of courageous action, passivity in the face of fascism. In each case, a lapse is registered in a substitution: The Unconsoled often provides interior monologue or daydream in the midst and instead of exterior interaction and description. It is not so much that an event, such as a concert or a sympathetic encounter, fails to happen--though it may fail to happen--but rather that, for the reader, something else happens: a fantasy, a desire, an adjacent and seemingly marginal incident. The novel's substitution repeats the narrator's distraction, though the narrator's distraction comes in the exchange of one incident for another. In this doubling of plot and story Ishiguro draws the reader's attention to the phrases...


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