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Book Review: Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro

NOCTURNE as defined in the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

noc-turne. noun. \ˈnäk-ˌtərn\  a work of art dealing with evening or night; especially : a dreamy pensive composition for the piano — compare aubade 3

My heart was full to bursting after reading Nocturnes. Kazuo Ishiguro’s works always have that effect on me: they make me reflect, ponder, and ruminate on the themes that were subtly interwoven into the narrative. The five stories in this latest offering are no exception.

“If I’m alone at home, I get increasingly restless, bothered by the idea that I’m missing some crucial encounter out there somewhere. But if I’m left by myself in someone else’s place, I often find myself a nice sense of peace engulfing me. I love sinking into an unfamiliar sofa with whatever book happens to be lying nearby.”

“She thinks I’ve let myself down,’ he was saying. ‘But I haven’t. I’m doing perfectly okay. Endless horizons are all very well when you’re young. But get to your age, you’ve got to … you’ve got to get some perspective. That’s what kept going round in my head whenever she got unbearable about it. Perspective, she needs perspective. And I kept saying to myself, look, I’m doing okay. Look at loads of other people, people we know. Look at Ray. Look what a pig’s arse he’s making of his life. She needs perspective.”

The recurring themes in what Ishiguro termed a “story cycle” are music, love, and the passage of time, or the twilight of one’s years. In “Crooner,” he writes about how a singer and his wife come to a mutual decision that would mean sacrificing their personal happiness in an effort to resuscitate the singer’s dwindling career. The singer commissions an up-and-coming guitarist in Venice to lend him a hand  in expressing his love for his wife. In “Come Rain or Come Shine,” a husband and wife invite their Spain-based college friend, Ray, to visit them in their London flat, but their marriage woes pave the way for awkward and terribly hilarious moments with the clueless Ray. In “Malvern Hills,” a struggling guitarist is made to reflect on his attempts to penetrate the London music scene when he encounters a Swiss tourist couple, who narrate their own hardships in playing their music, the demands of mainstream competition, and their contradicting responses to it. In “Nocturne,” a saxophonist undergoes a major physical transformation just so he would be given the break that he deserves. Finally, in “Cellists,” a young Hungarian cellist meets an American virtuoso, under whose tutelage he finds improvement, but whose own career never took off because of personal choices.

* * *

“But you play that passage like it’s the memory of love. You’re so young, yet you know desertion, abandonment. That’s why you play that third movement the way you do. Most cellists, they play it with joy. But for you, it’s not about joy, it’s about the memory of a joyful time that’s gone for ever.”

All the stories were rueful and morose, it was all I could do not to say “awww” at the end of each story. But they’re not really sad sad stories, not the kind that would make you depressed or rend your heart into pieces.

Ishiguro’s novels (at least for the books that I’ve read so far) have that quiet quality to them, with nary a gloomy nor disconsolate feel to them. The stories in Nocturnes are written simply, with a serene, wistful air about each one, all with the perfect tinge of melancholy. That’s it, the perfect word to describe it: Nocturnes is full of melancholy.

* * *

My personal favorite of all the 5 stories would have to be the first one, “Crooner,” being the saddest one. It made me reflect on life, the decisions that one encounters as he goes along, and how difficult the choices can be. It made me think, no one can really have it all.

“If disappointments do come, you will carry on still. You will say, just as he does, I am so lucky.”

I know nothing of the technical aspect of music, songs, musical instruments, or musical stardom, but I do love music itself, and I do know how it is to be only human. As humans, we will realize that the twilight of our years will come, like a thief in the night, and we will eventually come to a point when the only thing left to do is reminisce on the glory days. We ponder on decisions made, successes and failures met, and at the end of the day, try our very best not to rue anything that is past, for they can no longer be undone.

My fourth Ishiguro book, and definitely not the last.

[Book club friends don’t call me the “resident Ishi-natic” for nothing.]

Date read: April 2012
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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