Saturday, May 09, 2009

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes : Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, May 2009) 221pp.

Kazuo Ishigruo's latest work of fiction, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, arrived while I was in the midst of re-reading and reading the short stories of Vladimir Nabokov. (In a timely thematic wink, I had just completed Nabokov's story, Music, with its wonderful descriptions of the pianist's hands reflected in the piano.) The contrast of styles was therefore more pronounced. Moving from the richly detailed reflections of Nabokov's narratives to the clear and precise prose of Ishiguro was certainly a shift. As the spectral reflections of the pianist's hands lingered in my mind, I thought that Ishiguro's short stories were finely crafted, but perhaps slight. But after having finished the stories and having returned to Nabokov, I kept thinking about them. And the more I thought about them, the more I came to appreciate the subtle triangular dynamic between the author's intentions, the motivations and perceptions of the characters, and the suppositions and anticipations of us the readers.

This triadic concern revolves around the--for the most part-- first-person narratives of Ishigruo's protagonists, protagonists who do share something with Nabokovian characters: they are displaced in the world. This triadic pattern is also paralleled in the relationships of the characters, usually the displaced protagonist is involved with two other people, generally a married couple. These open-ended stories may seem light, but the characters stay with you. They left me thinking that most people are displaced in some form or other. The imagination has room to conjure possibilities.

In the first story, Crooner, a young man, Janeck, originally from an eastern bloc country, is working in Venice as a musician in the outdoor cafés. The musicians have to pander to the tastes of the tourists and the 'Godfather' theme music is a common piece in their repertoire. This musical piece is referred to in the final story, Cellists, and acts much like a musical motif in bringing the five stories to their conclusion, rounding off the five movements with a rondo to this initial allegro ma non troppo. Janeck is an outsider to the locals, and yet is a masked player to the tourists. He recognizes a famous older American singer sitting in the café, a singer whose records Janeck's mother found solace and comfort with back in the old communist days of his upbringing. He introduces himself and the plot develops whereby Tony Gardner, the singer, asks Janeck to accompany him while he sings to his wife from a gondola. Janeck's perceptions of what state this older couple's marriage is in, is coupled with our anticipations of possible outcomes. But Janeck, and we the readers, discover that our expectations are blind and the cool truth is down a shadier lagoon.

In the second story, Come Rain or Come Shine, the displaced protagonist is Ray, a Brit who lives in Spain teaching English. He has come back to England at the behest of his friend Charlie whose marriage to Emily is in the rough. Ray and Emily had been close when in University where they shared a mutual love of the music of certain women singers like Shirley Bassie and Sarah Vaughn. Both Charlie and Emily believe that Ray is frittering away his life and that he should really settle himself and get a decent job, a marriage, a house. This is a strange dance of a story and we find Charlie trying to use Ray to help with his troubled marriage. Ray seems rather pathetic and lets himself be manipulated, and it seems it is due to his very displacement, his lack of roots, that he can be so easily used.

The third story, Malvern Hills, the first-person narrator is a young, immature man who is trying to be a singer-songwriter and has opted to help, in a most casual way, his sister and brother-in-law who run a restaurant in the Malvern Hills catering to tourists during the summer months. He has yet to make a way for himself in the world and suffers from that late adolescent light-headedness or self-centeredness which is a type of blindness to reality. He meets a Swiss couple who happen to be musicians. They play popular tunes in restaurants in Austria and Switzerland, although they prefer Swiss folk music. This is a soft gentle story, an adagio if you will, and I was left wondering if the young man's perceptions of the world were altered after meeting the older couple, but concluded that perhaps only on an unconscious level. He was still the unsettled youth with his unknown future before him like the clouds above, floating towards the distant Worcestershire Beacon.

With the fourth story, Nocturne, the first-person narrator is Steve, a jazz sax player whose wife, Helen, has left him for a wealthy businessman. Wealthy enough to offer to pay for plastic surgery for Steve so he can reestablish his career with a fresh face. This is a bizarre story-line and it has Steve staying at a fancy hotel in order to recover from his surgery. Next-door, also recovering from surgery, is the celebrity wife of Tony Gardner the singer in the first story, Crooner. It is a rather a sad story of how individuals are willing to change their external appearance rather than work on their inner self. Both Steve and Lindy Gardner are displaced and single, and seemingly without direction. My expectations of their mutual support floundered and like life, people, unchanged, go their separate ways.

In the final story, Cellists, we have the first-person narrator, a sax player, in an unnamed Italian tourist center playing in a group much like the group in the first story. He spots a cellist out in the café who used to play with his band seven years ago, a young man named Tibor. The sax player then tells the story of Tibor, the highly trained Hungarian cellist in exile, now playing popular tunes like the theme to the 'Godfather' in tourist cafés. Tibor is befriended by an American woman, Eloise McCormack, who wants to be his teacher and mentor. She recognized his talent, his 'potential.' The narration shifts into a third-person objective view point to encompass the breadth of Tibor's story and then shifts back into the voice of the sax player. Tibor's life is altered by this encounter with its interesting twist and yet we are left wondering exactly in what way. What really became of his career and life. The sax player with a laissez-faire attitude is reluctant, or too laid-back to enquire. Life flows on; people go their separate ways and we are left wondering.

Overall, Nocturnes is an interesting deceptively light group of lyric pieces and any fan of Ishiguro would want to check them out.

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