By Kazuo Ishiguro
Alfred A. Knopf
535 pp., $25
Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel, ''A Pale View of Hills'' (1981), portrays his native city, Nagasaki, in the wake of the bombing that devastated it nine years before his birth. His second novel ''An Artist of the Floating World'' (1986), unfolded in the alien milieu of prewar, imperialist Japan. In his third novel, the Booker Prize-winning ''Remains of the Day'' (1990), Ishiguro imagined the world seen through the eyes of a stuffy, repressed English butler on the verge of retirement.
Now, in his fourth novel, ''The Unconsoled,'' this gifted and versatile writer, raised and educated in England, takes on a theme of Kafkaesque complexity that is played out in an ambience as overwhelmingly Central European as a vat of steaming goulash with dumplings.
The story is narrated by Ryder, a world-famous pianist who arrives in an unidentified European city to give a concert. From the instant of his arrival, Ryder is politely but relentlessly besieged by people wanting him to do small favors that will only take a ''moment'' out of his busy schedule but which will supposedly change their lives immeasurably. From the hotel manager who begs him to take a few minutes to look at the collection of press cuttings his music-loving wife has assembled about his career , to an old friend who pleads with Ryder to stop by her women's cultural group to prove that she really knows him, everyone wants to make use of the visiting celebrity.
As if this were not daunting enough, Ryder is already at a distinct disadvantage from the moment he sets foot in town: For some reason, he can't remember where he is or what he is expected to do.
He is supposed to be following a schedule of lectures, meetings, and social events leading up to his concert. But he has no copy of this schedule, and - what is stranger still - doesn't tell his host. If Ryder is a man who has stumbled into a situation that makes very little sense, he is also one who doesn't try very hard to make sense of it.
As in his previous novel, Ishiguro is concerned here with the ways in which role-playing, the fabrication of a public facade, can eviscerate the private self. It's not surprising that in attempting to describe this strange and elusive novel, its publishers should characterize its protagonist as ''a man whose public self has taken on a life of its own.'' Certainly, Ryder is portrayed as having been too busy with his career to spend enough time with his family and as someone who allows his daily activitie s, sometimes his very thoughts, to be shaped by the demands of his so-called public.
But this is just the beginning. Not only Ryder, but everyone else in town seems caught in a trap of his or her own making. And in each case, this ''trap,'' this inability to act, is based upon that person's misconception of how others see him. There's the kindly old hotel porter who stopped talking to his daughter for the most trivial of reasons years ago when she was a child, and still cannot bring himself to address her now, except by communicating his comments via her little boy. There's the man who married a music-loving woman who mistook him for an aspiring composer: Nearly two decades later, never having actually discussed this with her, he keeps wondering if she knows the truth and will leave him.
Ryder himself is obsessed with the fact that his parents are expected to come to town for the upcoming concert: He still sees them as the ultimate arbiters of his success.
Ishiguro brilliantly conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of this status-conscious city that prides itself on its reverence for culture and suffers from a mild inferiority complex vis-a-vis larger places, such as Vienna or Stuttgart. The citizens are exaggeratedly deferential, indeed, obsequious, toward their distinguished guest, yet underlyingly demanding and bossy.
''If you find time to sit down at the Hungarian Cafe...,'' advises the helpful porter, ''I feel certain you won't regret it. I would suggest you order a pot of coffee and a piece of apple strudel. Incidentally, sir, I did just wonder ... if I might ask a small favor.... You see, I just know my daughter will be at the Hungarian Cafe. She'll have little Boris with her, she's a very pleasant young woman, sir, I'm sure you'd feel very sympathetic towards her....''
And on he rambles for another few pages, pressuring Ryder to meet his daughter. Everyone else in town seems afflicted with the same logorrhea, launching at a moment's notice into interminable dialogues, trying to draw him into their obsessions.
The physical layout of the city reinforces this sense of entrapment: Hallways lead into rooms in distant buildings, brick walls loom suddenly between pedestrians and their goals, and the harried Ryder often gets lost in a labyrinth or finds himself going in circles. The distinguished visitor is often overwhelmed by a sensation of powerlessness. Worse yet, he begins to find himself behaving quite as irrationally as his hosts.
Needless to say, the cumulative effect of some 500 pages of frustration and anxiety is something akin to boredom. Yet this boredom - though scarcely ''exquisite'' in the manner of Proust - is oddly fascinating. Occasionally, when some small breakthrough occurs and someone manages to express a true feeling, there is a poignant glimmer of hope.
Wending one's way through the labyrinth of atrophied emotion and blocked expression, one may chafe at the longueurs, but still appreciate the imagination and artistry with which they have been rendered.