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Chaos As Metaphor: An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro might be late for a lunch date. He's expected to meet with a group of Japanese men at the American Booksellers' Convention in Chicago, and "nothing, absolutely nothing," repeats his publisher, "can interfere with his schedule."

After three days of begging, cajoling and negotiating with his publisher, we finally agree that Ishiguro can meet with me for an interview, but this proposed interview must start after his scheduled book signing and finish before his scheduled luncheon.

"How much time will we have?" I ask.

"You'll have to interview him on his way to the trade floor," he says. "About ten or fifteen minutes. He's a very busy man, you know."

We agree that Kazuo Ishiguro is a very busy man (since winning the 1989 Booker Prize with his novel, The Remains of the Day) and, by this reasoning, fifteen minutes should be just enough time.

It seems only appropriate that this unscheduled interview should mirror a scene straight from the pages of Ishiguro's latest novel, The Unconsoled. The novel follows a famous concert pianist named Ryder, who appears in a small, unnamed city to give the performance of his lifetime. Everything and everyone in the city seems hinged on Ryder's upcoming performance, on his many unscheduled social engagements and on the content of a speech Ryder is scheduled to give about a city he can hardly remember.

The problem at hand: Ryder has lost his schedule. Fumbling through his appointments--guessing the significance of absolutely everyone he meets--plunges Ryder into an intriguing, sad comedy of errors. Without his all-important schedule, for example, Ryder doesn't seem to even recognize his own family, until he gets some whiff of recognition, some clue that inevitably winds him up and points him in the right direction, toward a further fumble and his next (supposed) appointment.

The novel maintains this precarious balance of narrative ambiguity all the way to page 424, when--quite suddenly--hope seems to loom in the future. Ryder's concert is on the threshold of answering everyone's life-long problem, solving every misunderstanding with all the precision and grace of planets swinging into alignment (briefly) to eclipse the past.

It is this particular moment I ultimately want to discuss with Ishiguro: this wonderful moment in The Unconsoled when Ishiguro finally brings all of Ryder's digressions and narrative tangents together, in one fist, only to shake those hopeful expectations loose with dark, characteristic irony. To get to this moment on page 424, I quickly learn that we will have to wade through Ryder's misadventures and intriguing shifts of perspective, if only to give the novel a context, a background and a set of rules. But I'm going to get to this page, I tell myself. The Unconsoled may be a sad, comic place, but I'm determined to find out how Ishiguro can be so bold as to crush so many narrative expectations so neatly, so irreverently.

I have ten to fifteen minutes, a note pad of questions and a hand-held dictation recorder that I give him as soon as our hands meet. As we walk from his signing booth to the main building, we are knocked from side to side by passing, pedestrian booksellers in crowded, windowless hallways. I look up from my notebook to avoid at least three head-on collisions. Ishiguro pushes me into a wall and saves us both from the projected path of one low-flying wheelchair. And I try (only marginally) to glimpse his publisher's red hair ahead of us, leading the way.

PO: Okay, the mic is on, just talk into the top of the machine.

KI: These are the kinds of crazy things that happen at conventions.

PO: I have to say it: I feel a little like one of your characters in your novel, tracking you down from the remains of a misplaced schedule.

KI: (laughs) Well, we all have a bunch of schedules inside us, I suppose.

PO: But this, perhaps, is a more personal schedule. Is there any relation to the musician, Ryder, in your novel to Ishiguro, the author on tour?

KI: Only a superficial thing. I used some of that chaos of being on tour as a metaphor. It was available, so like a lot of things that are available, I used them. But it's not supposed to be only that. I also happen to be on tour.

PO: It would be the worst author tour imaginable.

KI: Well, I don't think that an author tour is sufficiently interesting for people to read about it. The book is supposed to be a metaphor for the way most of us have lives that we blunder through, pretending we know where we're going but not really knowing where we're going.

PO: But the musician in the book, Ryder, he is not solely a man who blunders through his life. He doesn't even seem to know his family on arrival; he gets sent to them through another character, the baggage handler at the hotel, and he must piece all their lives together.

KI: Yeah.

PO: It's almost as if his memory is out of whack.

KI: His memory doesn't work in the usual way but I was trying to do something a bit odd here. I was trying to compress the way most of us go through a lifetime just in those few days. So it's a bit like that experience of getting to a certain point in your life and suddenly finding that you've got various people attached to you, wondering, not quite knowing, how you got into that situation. It's that sort of thing, except here it happens literally. I mean: the whole thing takes place. I wanted to use that kind of dream world to express it. It's not literally a dream, but I wanted to use some of the things that happen in dreams, which I thought most people will be--on some level--familiar with. You know, the experience. Because they've operated in that dream world, so a number of strange things happen like that. His memory is funny.

PO: He is also an omniscient narrator who is completely untrustworthy.

KI: He is omniscient in some ways, but he is incredibly restricted in others. He might have access to other people's memories but sometimes he can't even remember very basic things.

PO: Was that a hard balance to maintain? Was that one of the major challenges you faced in writing this book?

KI: It was one of them. But the major challenge in writing this book was to actually figure out a set of rules that govern the world that the books takes place in.

PO: What do you mean by an alternative set of rules?

KI: The rules that apply to time, to human behavior, social behavior, in the world of this book, that are different from the ones that apply in our life. Time-sense distances, space relationships, even human beings behave in a different way. Memory behaves in a different way. But it was very important to me that there should be rules and that the reader wants to be acclimatized to this new world. There should be a framework. It shouldn't be just a wild place, where anything can happen.

PO: What do you call those tangents, those narrative excursions, childhood memories and digressions that Ryder gives the reader?

KI: It is a kind of tangent but the word I've been using in England where I've been talking about the book is "appropriation". Because it's not just a tangent. It's like in a dream when you use--when you might see somebody--your milkman, whoever, your grocer, somebody who pops up in your dream but actually that person is standing for somebody much more important from your past. In other words, you are appropriating people you run into in the present to stand for somebody deeper in your psyche, in your past, in your personal history. That's partly what's happening here. These people that he runs into, they do exist in their own right, in this city, to some extent, but he's using them, in this kind of strange way, to tell you the story, about his own life, so you really learn about him, and his parents and his childhood and indeed what he fears he might become.

PO: Is he the Unconsoled?

KI: He is the Unconsoled. He's got this idea that if he becomes a great enough pianist, if he gives the greatest concert ever, one day, everything that went wrong in the past will get healed. He has this kind of irrational idea. And I think this is a time when he discovers that you can't go back to fix things. Sometimes things are broken forever.

(Having arrived on the trade floor, we notice five Japanese men bowing frantically in our direction. Ishiguro's red-haired publisher is standing next to them, examining his wristwatch in an effort to hurry us along. We are only a few meters from all these bowing, wristwatch-watching gentlemen, so my question about page 424 seems a ridiculously long ways away. I look at Ishiguro and he's holding out his hand, trying to give me back the recorder. Still, there might be just enough time to ask one quick question. What about that moment, I want to ask, when everything is on the verge of working out...)

PO: What's your writing schedule like?

KI: Well, I plan a lot. I go through this period where I don't write words; I just prepare. But I try to be fairly disciplined about it. I work a kind of nine-to-five type of thing. Sometimes I spill into the evening. Other days I don't do anything.

KI: (shrugging his shoulders) I'm going to have to go now.

PO: That's about it, I guess.

June 1995

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