Social worker from hell

THE UNCONSOLED by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber £15,99

IMAGINE this: Mr Ryder, a distinguished pianist, comes to a nondescript Central European town. He is fawned over, deferred to, treated like royalty. But somehow he finds himself in his dressing gown at a civic banquet, where a hundred people in evening dress have been waiting for two hours. And then there is the whole business of Brodsky's dog. The four-legged friend of the local musical genius turned alcoholic has expired, and feelings against the local vet run high. Fights break out. A bronze statue is proposed. Speech after speech honours the animal, and his master's grief. Suddenly Ryder realises that, even though he was driven several miles to get to the dinner, he is back in his own hotel.

In Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, things like this just keep happening. Time balloons and contracts. As in an Escher drawing, a passage doorway may lead to an open field, or to a cupboard with a view over a concert hall. Whisked off unexpectedly to a lunch with the local arty set, he finds himself in a lorry driver's caf with bearded men eating bowls of mashed potato with long handled spoons. The men quarrel, lay bare old feuds, ask Ryder's advice, demand his approval. They all want a part of him.

But Boris is waiting in a caf. Ryder has promised Boris, a little boy who has casually come to be seen as his son, to take him to the "old apartment" to find Number Nine, his favourite flick football player. And he has promised Bruno's grandfather Gustav, crusading hotel porter, that he will talk to to Bruno's mother, Sophie, about her problems. He has promised to talk to waiting journalists. On a tram he realises that the conductress is Fiona Roberts, a friend from his village school in Worcestershire; she is furious with him for failing to turn up to her party the night before.

He promises to come to her flat, but by this time we already know what will happen: Ryder will be waylaid by another needy soul in futile search of some personal salvation. With sickening, hand-wringing deference, they will spread out in front of him, like symptoms for a doctor's attention, their miseries, their histories and hopes, their tattered marriages and damaged loves. It is as if they want to apply to their unconsoled spirits the balm of his celebrity; inevitably, he disappoints them all.

Who is this Ryder, this pianist who never practises (or, when he tries, finds one piano jammed into a lavatory cubicle with a disappearing door, another into a tiny wooden hut perched on a hill, where his impassioned playing turns out, with pleasing circularity, to be providing the funeral music for Brodsky to bury his dog)? Is he the Dark Rider? (After all he can, just like Superman, sit in a car outside a building and follow the conversation of two people in a flat inside .)

And his own life? When Ryder meets the unknown Sophie, Boris's mother, she talks angrily of phone calls and rows, places they have lived. Slowly, half memories dimly glimmer up - of an apartment they had, the details of a shared life. "You've done your share now!" she shouts at him. "Let somebody else do it all now!" Ryder replies, in his only attempt at solving the riddle of his own existence: "the fact is, people need me. I arrive at a place and more often than not find terrible problems. Deep-seated, seemingly intractable problems, and people are so grateful I've come." The social worker from hell, perhaps?

Two things we do learn. He had a miserable childhood, full of shameful secret. He is in agony as to whether his parents will turn up for his concert. And in this miserable childhood, Ryder went in for what he called his "training sessions". Whenever, playing alone near his parents' cottage, he felt a sense of panic and need to return home, he would deliberately delay as long as possible, fighting down his emotions, and "There was no doubting the strange thrill that had accompanied the growing fear and panic."

So extreme emotional control, and the damage it can inflict, is still Ishiguro's subject. But in this book it is not like The Remains of the Day, whose drama and emotional intensity grew out of the imminent explosion that seemed inevitable but never quite came. Here, repression of feeling seems to have no combustible quality; it is just the staple ingredient of mediocre existence - somehow as dully inescapable as the circular routes of the town's trams.

This novel will prompt comparisons with Kafka, of course, but perhaps Ishiguro's foremost model - from the unmistakable ring of the title onwards - was Dostoevsky. The book's labyrinthine fantasies are hardly the stuff of our wildest dreams - more like that of our most sober nightmares. And like those dressing-gown at a banquet nightmares, it goes on and on. Even Ishiguro's great fans, of whom I am one, will admit that this book is far, far too long; and it will be easy to feel angry with him for failing to give us our sweeties, to supply us with another superb bonne bouche like The Remains of the Day. But if he now wants to do something different, be someone else, why shouldn't he try?

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried