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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?