Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Inaudible Sons: Music and Diaspora in Kazuo Ishiguro's the Unconsoled

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Inaudible Sons: Music and Diaspora in Kazuo Ishiguro's the Unconsoled

Article excerpt

'The exile is a stranger to his mother,' writes Julia Kristeva,1 and for anyone in pursuit of this idea, Ishiguro's fourth novel may serve as a most complex commentary. In this text, masculinity is portrayed in ways that are, on the one hand, nearly textbook illustrations of certain basic concepts in contemporary studies in human sexuality and, on the other, highly original visions in their tight interlocking with notions of migration, displacement and ethnic difference. Main character and narrator Ryder arrives in an unidentified, presumably Central European town to give a much-awaited recital in his capacity as a world-famous concert pianist, and although he is treated as a visitor, an undecided degree of familiarity with the place also begins to emerge. The musician soon meets Gustav, Sophie and Boris whom he first perceives as strangers, but who turn out to be, uncannily, the story-teller's father-in-law, wife and son (or at least likely candidates for these positions). With these contacts established, a central narrative strand details how Ryder fails to balance his far-reaching public commitments and the domestic responsibilities that are inherent in his marital and parental status. In the end, not only does the planned meeting with his mother and father fall through, but the pianist comes to be rejected by his son and wife as well. Yet the man continues, in an ironically still unshaken spirit, to pursue the compensatory rewards of travel and exile.

As Kristeva's note implies, migrancy eradicates intimacy even in relationships where physical and emotional closeness was once at its maximum. Ryder's inability to connect to his wife and son is supplemented by fantasies and memories about his own parents whom he cannot wait to see at his concert but who, it unfolds piecemeal, abused him as a child, instilled into him a sense of mediocrity, and never actually attended a single recital of his. Thus, ejected from bonds of love and denied parental recognition, the main character figures as an exile not only in the sense of someone actually living an unsettled, globe-trotting life, but also in the sense of occupying a peripheral position in potentially profound and nurturing human relationships. This intertwined emotional and geographical marginality is aptly expressed by Sophie who declares, in the coda of the narrative, to Ryder: 'Leave us. You were always on the outside of our love. Now look at you. On the outside of our grief too. Leave us. Go away' (532).2 Away Ryder will go, but he does not feel particularly devastated. For him, the novel's nearly hyperbolic representation of masculine independence reveals the sundering of ties, the newer and newer departures to be a set pattern, with movement invariably privileged over commitment and intimacy, a 'nomadic existence over meaningful familial attachments.'3

Towards Sophie and their son, the allegorically named narrator acts as a stereotypical 'real man' who, numerous theorists of masculinity argue, is indeed a figurative stranger to his mother (or any motherly presences) in that his self-conception necessarily hinges on separation from the feminine and the childlike that motherhood signifies. Such negative definition is hinted at by the metaphorical quality of a particular childhood memory, emblematically resurfacing in the very first chapter. Looking at the hotel rug from his bed, the narrator recalls

how once that same area of floor had been covered by a worn green mat, where several times a week I would set out in careful formations my plastic soldiers ... one afternoon when I had been lost within my world of plastic soldiers [and] a furious row had broken out downstairs. The ferocity of the voices had been such that, even as a child of six or seven, I had realized this to be of no ordinary row. But I had told myself it was nothing and ... continued with my battle plans. Near the centre of that green mat had been a torn patch that had been a source of much irritation to me. …

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