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Cult Messiah

Pianist provides panacea for village's woes

The Unconsoled
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Vintage International; $13; 535 pp.

Reviewed by Lauren Walsh

THIS MOST RECENT novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for his award-winning The Remains of the Day, includes none of the same proper English life or Victorianesque qualities of Ishiguro's past work. Instead, readers are startled with layers of ambiguity and surreal juxtapositions as they page deeper into The Unconsoled.

From the start, the reader is introduced to a haze of uncertainty that surrounds much of the action. Mr. Ryder, a world-renowned pianist, journeys to an unnamed European city to give the performance of his lifetime, and yet, he cannot remember ever having agreed to play, much less accomplish the various other things expected of him throughout the novel.

In fact, though Ryder is a pianist, his upcoming performance seems to occupy the back burner as he is instead charged with solving numerous ills that have befallen this backward, dream-like town. The city's catastrophe, or so the citizens believe, is its lack of aesthetic progression. They have heard no modern, innovative music (the book speaks of art in terms of music) and consequently believe that all their social problems can be attributed to this.

Enter Ryder who, being a famous musician, is expected to resolve the aesthetic woes of the city (leading, in turn, to solutions for all life's other problems). And so Ryder's status is not just that of a performer, but of a revolutionizing cultural messiah.

This strange and illogical belief is a main premise of the novel, but becomes easily accepted because the rest of the work is itself so surreal. Ryder, in this foreign city, happens upon both childhood friends and complete strangers, all of whom know intimate details of his life. Physical landscapes are warped beyond understanding: A country cafe has a tunnel-like door that connects with a city hotel. And Ryder apparently has the ability to know things that occur out of sight and hearing distance.

In all, once the reader adjusts to the ethereal flashes of insight and glimpses of the past, the story itself is very compelling. It is on one level vague in its explanations, but there is no getting past that. Accept it. It adds inherent mystery to the flavor of the novel, which is already spiced with vividly colorful writing. The stylized writing itself reads very swiftly and the appropriate title conveys the fate of the characters--the townspeople and especially Ryder himself are hopelessly and inconsolably lost in their dreamlike (or nightmare?) worlds.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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