In the lost heart of Mitteleuropa

Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel is a farrago of mysteries. DJ Taylor explores its obscurities and concealed entrances; The Unconsoled Kazuo Ishiguro Faber £15.99
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Anthony Powell's What's Become of Waring (1939) follows the fortunes of a small and somewhat precarious publishing house named Judkins & Judkins. The firm has few best- sellers, but one of its surefire successes is an author by the name of Redhead. Consternation ensues when Redhead, of whom great things are expected, turns in a novel that is 30,000 words too short en-titled Than Whom What Other. Something of this feeling, one imagines, must have occurred to the editorial staff of Messrs Faber when they sat down to contemplate the manuscript of The Unconsoled.

The omens were tip-top. In fact Kazuo Ishiguro's career to date has been a kind of object lesson in how to succeed. Having attended the University of East Anglia creative writing course when it was still respectable, you open your accounts as a precocious 28-year-old with a deft, exquisite miniature (A Pale View Of Hills) and are selected as a Best of British Young Novelist. Four years later you follow this up with a Booker-shortlisted second novel (An Artist Of The Floating World). Your third outing (The Remains Of The Day) wins the Booker in a hot year and gets filmed with Emma Thompson. Six silent and laborious years later, you re-emerge with, well, let us call it a brave and venturesome leap into the unknown.

The Unconsoled's queer, otherworldly air - all that old Mitteleuropa baggage of lost hearts and empires - is apparent right from its opening page, when Ryder, a celebrated musician regarded by many as "the world's finest living pianist" checks in at a hotel in an anonymous central European city where he is due to perform. Escorted to the lift by Gustav, a punctilious elderly porter, Ryder is immediately treated to an inconsequential five- page monologue (the lift inching upwards all the while, presumably) on the vagaries of the portering life. With Ryder installed in his room, the reader gets his first inkling of the obscurities and concealed entrances with which the book is strewn. By what can only be an act of telepathy, the musician divines that the old man is worried about his estranged daughter and her son, Sophie and Boris.

Downstairs, Hoffman, the hotel manager, is keen to show his wife's collection of press-cuttings to Ryder. She is a devoted fan of his work, and the cuttings form a summary of his career. Hoffman junior, meanwhile, also booked to play at the concert, anxiously solicits some professional advice. Innocuous though these requests may appear, they carry a sharp sense of foreboding. This is compounded when Gustav pops up once more to ask if Ryder would mind interceding with his daughter. Again the whiff of anterior knowledge hangs on the wind. Despite characterising himself as an "outsider", Ryder is dimly conscious that he knows Sophie and Boris from somewhere, even to the extent of remembering a previous conversation about moving house. Before very long it becomes clear - if anything can be said to become clear - that Ryder and Sophie have some sort of relationship, although Boris is apparently not their son. The strangest thing of all is Ryder's simultaneous sense of bafflement and omniscience, and his sense of participating in the novel even as he unravels it, as if he were playing in a football match that he was also commentating on.

And so on, through another 400 or so strikingly opaque pages. On a twilight stroll, Ryder and Boris become detached from Sophie. After wandering by chance into an old schoolfriend of Ryder's named Saunders, they are rescued by Hoffman junior and returned to the hotel after a visit which Hoffman pays to an elderly lady named Miss Collins.Slowly, digressively, some semblance of a story unfolds.

If The Unconsoled has any constants, they are perhaps a reliance on arcane symbols and the build-up of tension. Disgusted by Boris's childish interest in football, for instance, Saunders sternly suggests that he should plan for a useful career, "start learning about wall- papering, say, or tiling". Shortly afterwards, queueing for an ice-cream in a cinema, Ryder is surprised, or rather unsurprised, to find the saleswoman offering him a home decorating manual. The cinema visit, along with the subsequent society dinner, begins to foreground some of the anxieties undermining the city's life, the problems with Brodsky, a celebrated though bibulous conductor, and the thought expressed to Ryder by a city elder that "your agreeing to come to our humble city may prove absolutely crucial to us".

Oddly, the Powell comparison endures. The Mitteleuropa setting, undercurrents of unease, hints of tragedy, late night to-ings and froings from hotels, a kind of aching, subliminal sadness - all are reminiscent of Powell's early novel Venusberg (1932), and never more so than in the incidental strainings for comic effect. Ishiguro's chief vehicle is the deadpan monologue, self-important with accretions of detail heaped together to impress the wide-eyed listener. The following, in which Hoffman descants on the hotel's bedding policy, is characteristic: "We renew our mattresses at very frequent intervals. No other hotel in this town renews as many mattresses as we do. This I know for a fact. The mattresses we throw out would be considered serviceable for several further years by any of our so-called rivals. Did you know, Mr Ryder, that if one were to stand up, lengthways, end to end, all the used mattresses we throw out during five financial years, one would be able to make a line along our main street starting at the civic chambers, going right along to the fountain, round the corner of Sterngasse and as far down as Mr Winkler's pharmacy?"

You get the impression that this is intended to be screamingly funny, a real heads-down unravelling of the obsessive's mind, mining humour out of its absence. Somehow it doesn't work, mostly because the voice lacks any kind of irradiation. Its inertia is quite paralysing. Unlike the monomaniacs in Powell, Hoffman's tediousness is insufficiently frightful to make it interesting.

The dialogue continues at this level - leaden and without interest, and yet somehow intriguing in that its flatness seems quite deliberate. Even the concert hall finale, with its catastrophes predictable and unforseen, sheds scant light on the novel's theme, which might just be something to do with identity, or on its willed stylelessness. Throughout, the book's exact significance hangs defiantly out of reach.