Review: Nocturnes

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber & Faber
pp.221, Rs 499

Music, like love, is a many-splendoured thing. And failures in both can make for many-layered, nuanced, heart-warming tales. Nagasaki-born British writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut collection of short stories, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, is a musical soiree of sorts, a meditation on failures in both music and love.

The stories, written in first-person narratives which form parts of an “organic” whole, strum together a symphony of unrealised aspirations, unfulfilled desires and diminished dreams. They speak of missed opportunities, second-best alternatives and unhappy endings. The stories unfold a conflict between the might-have-been world and a world that is, something which Ishiguro had explored in his 1995 novel, The Unconsoled. The landscape of human failings, after all, has been Ishiguro’s favourite leitmotif for long.

These stories — of failures, constraints and limitations – are about musicians on the verge of losing their moorings, or finding it only to lose later. They are about the once-have-been and would-be greats in music, about partings and reunions. From the piazzas of Italy to Malvern Hills, it is the passage of time that is at work: while it has dethroned many greats like Tony Gardner, who is only a pale shadow of his glorious past, it holds out a hope for the struggling saxophonists and guitarists who are raring to make it to the “big league”, but are crippled by their fates and circumstances.

Replete with a sense of regret and repentance, these stories speak of compromises one has to make on the course of chasing one’s dreams, of the circumstances that make one settle to, in and for certain things, places and individuals.

In Ishiguro’s deft hands, these stories take the form of mystical musings: his characters’ crooning glory or the lack of it strike a right chord with the reader, who is only too aware of “the way things work” in today’s world. The way Ishiguro brings about his characters’ inner conflicts and tensions, delineates the dynamics of their relationships and creates a sense of sympathy with them, it makes you feel as if he can get a peek into his characters’ soul and psyche. The world of these musicians trying to get a foothold, make their mark, is only too familiar for Ishiguro. While he revisits the same in Nocturnes, he does this in a way that enables you to derive a heightened sense of pathos.

In Crooner, Janeck, a guitarist, performs with several bands at Piazza San Marco in Venice. At one of those performances, he comes across a legendary musician, Tony Gardner, whose relationship with his wife of 27 years is on its “last legs”. In a desperate bid to win her back, Gardner seeks Janeck’s help to serenade her from a gondola. It only results into Gardner’s despair.

“I’m no longer a major name. Now I could just accept that and fade away. Live on past glories. Or I could say no I’m not finished yet… I could make a comeback. But a comeback is not an easy game. You have to be prepared to make a lot of changes, some of them hard ones. You change the way you are. You even change some things you love,” says a despairing Gardner, who has to eventually let her go. “She needs to get out while she has time. Time to find love again, make another marriage. She needs to get out before it’s too late,” he says.

The idea of “changing” oneself in order to achieve success, stardom or celebrityhood reverberates in the title story, which finds a struggling saxophonist agree to undergo plastic surgery to get rid of his “loser ugly” face. It is here that Tony Gardner’s divorced wife, Lindy, resurfaces as she is also undergoing a surgery in Los Angeles. The narrator has been driven to the edge by his wife, Helen, who has left him for a millionaire, but she wishes him well and even convinces the new man in her life to come to her former husband’s rescue by paying for his surgery. But the narrator of the story is not quite convinced if that would prove to be the perfect route. Lindy, to him, epitomised “everything that was shallow and sickening about the world”. It is a world of “vacuous” celebrities where people with “negligible talent” are felicitated with awards and honours, where success stories are spun out of the absolute failures. As for the narrator, he doesn’t want “any doors opening for me other than ones that opens because of my music”.

In Come Rain or Come Shine, 47-year-old Raymond, an English teacher by profession, visits his college mates, Charlie and Emily, who are married and living in London. But their relationship has hit a rough patch and Raymond only becomes a tool to bring them together. A series of burlesque events follow when he opens Emily’s diary in her absence, which sees Raymond walk on all fours in the drawing room to give the impression of a dog rummaging through the room and destroying the pages of her diary.
What has put Charlie and Emily’s relationship on the rocks is the latter’s unrealistic expectations: “She thinks I’ve let myself down. But I haven’t. I am doing perfectly okay. Endless horizons are all very well when you’re young. But get to our age, you’ve got to…get some perspective,” says Charlie, who cheats on his wife to be with a woman who helps him bring out “the other me, the one that has been trapped inside”.
Emily, his wife, describes her dilemma as: “It’s hard to know where to settle. What to settle to.”In Malvern Hills, a young man who dreams to be a great singer-songwriter, visits his sister Maggie who lives with her husband Geoff in London.

He meets a middle-aged Swiss couple, Tilo and Sonja, who are musicians themselves and perform as duo at hotels and restaurants. Their lives, however, hit a period which makes them uncertain of their future. The stories in Nocturnes are joined together by an emotional umbilical chord, by virtue of being ruminations on music. And almost all these stories end on an unexpected, melancholic note. There are no predictable endings. But then, when it is Ishiguro, expect the unexpected.

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