Jul/Aug 2009 Book Reviews

Night music of a literary kind

Kazuo Ishiguro.

Faber. 2009. 221 pp.
ISBN: 978 0 571 24499 7

Reviewed by Ann Skea

Nocturne (definition): A pensive, melancholy musical composition; a night piece.

Buy now from Amazon! In some ways, Kazuo Ishiguro's story cycle, Nocturnes, fits this definition. The musical theme runs throughout the book and the individual stories are bitter-sweet expressions of the lives of his narrators. In other ways, these stories are not nocturnes at all. They are wry, perceptive character-studies and sometimes they are very funny, too.

Ishiguro's five stories have five different narrators. All but one are musicians; and the non-musician is passionate about American Broadway music, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and singers like Sarah Vaughan. Of the musicians, there is a young English guitarist who writes his own songs and is looking for his big break; he feels unappreciated, especially by his long-suffering, hard-working sister and brother-in-law, with whom he is staying. Another, also a guitarist, has migrated to Venice from an Easter European county and plays with various cafe orchestras in St. Mark's Square; he gets curiously involved with the failing marriage of an aging American crooner who wants to create a romantic Venetian experience for his wife. Another narrator, rather older, is a jazz saxophonist who has been talked by his agent into having a face-lift; he embarks on a weird adventure with a fellow patient in the hotel where they are recuperating. And the narrator of the last story is another Venice cafe musician who tells the story of a Hungarian cellist and his involvement with an American woman whose mission in life is to create cellists of genius.

Two of the stories are set in Venice and two have characters which overlap, but each story is as different as its narrator. Ishiguro has a wonderful ear for speech patterns. His young misunderstood song-writer, living rent-free at the cafe in the Malvern Hills run by his sister, speaks like any selfish young man with a chip on his shoulder who remains convinced, against all available evidence, that he is in the right. Ishiguro's middle-aged music lover is clearly a loser in the eyes of his oldest married friends, but it is clear from their conversations with him that they are as self-deluded as he is. And the Hungarian cellist, newly resident in Venice, has the touchy, defensive "voice" of an uncertain but proud young man who is afraid he might be being patronized.

Ishiguro is equally at home with female voices and he manages, in the demanding brevity of a short story, to create people whose characters show through their speech and actions. Each, sadly, is a flawed human being. But aren't we all? In two of the stories the flaws in the narrator's character create situations which are bizarre, funny and almost unbelievable, but Ishiguro carries this off with aplomb.

In spite of the humour, these nocturnes are, in the end, gentle, sad depictions of dreamers. Ishiguro's narrators are people who, however misguided they may be and whatever blunt realities of life confront them, cling optimistically to their own romantic vision. Night music? Perhaps. Beautifully played? Certainly.


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