Saturday, December 26, 2009

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro

"Nocturnes" opens with a haunting short story, "Crooner," which for me is the best of this collection. "Crooner" gives us vividly what is best in Ishiguro's fiction - his ability to draw characters and his use of carefully concealed information - sometimes from the reader, sometimes from his characters.

The narrator is a musician in Venice who grew up in Eastern Europe under communism. During a set, he sees a popular cabaret singer whose career has seen better days sitting at a table. The narrator introduces himself, expecting a hasty greeting followed by a tactful exit. Instead, he finds himself invited into the singer's life and, subsequently, his troubled marriage.

In "An Artist of the Floating World," Ishiguro gave us the portrait of an artist recounting his life, artfully and obliviously concealing his involvement in wartime Japan's martial culture. The artist's spiritual twin is Stephens, the butler of "The Remains of the Day," who is unaware or unwilling to admit his employer's complicity in appeasement with the Nazis or his love of the head housekeeper. Ishiguro's characters are human beings who live by, because of, and imprisoned in their own illusions.

The narrator of "Crooner," however, draws a few conclusions, as does the reader about Tony Gardner, our seemingly forgotten singer who dreams of a Tony Bennett-like comeback. The narrator also gives a few words of encouragement as he assists Gardner in a midnight serenade of his wife from a Venice canal. But not everything is what it seems. Just as the narrator's mother was a "prisoner" of communism and lost love, it is apparent that either Gardner or his wife Lindy too are prisoners of something, whether it be lost fame or love. Figuring out which is left up to the reader.

Ishiguro's characters in this story, as in the other stories of this book, are adequately described in one story as "well-intentioned mediocrities" - people who are in the grip of music and hover just on the borders of notoriety or popularity. There is an appreciation both for the arrogance of the musician, and the humility playing music demands from its practitioners. As in the final story, "Cellists," we hear from the same narrator as "Crooner," who tells of another friend in a relationship that is not quite love. A cellist meets a woman he believes to be a virtuoso, but instead is someone who hasn't played in years because she doesn't wish to "damage her gift" with the well-intentioned mediocrity of a teacher. What in another writer's hands would be a tiresome crank becomes a character of beauty and, of course, blissful ignorance.

Ishiguro's other stories toy with humor giving action that sometimes feels forced but entertaining. When a character begins describing a fascination he has with a female dentist, the explanation made me laugh for several minutes uncontrollably. It is good to see him occasionally straying out of the darkness, but it is there that he, like the crooners of old, is able to work his old black magic.

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