The narrators of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels and short fiction are never reliable; they exist in worlds where the truth is too painful to be confronted in any direction but sideways. The protagonists of books like The Remains Of The Day and Never Let Me Go speak in refined, dignified tones, and they never consciously lie. The tragedy isn’t that they aren’t happy, but that the only way to achieve happiness would be to become someone else entirely. Love lurks at the edges of their lives, or great danger threatens them; to understand either would require such a fundamental shift of personality that it would be easier to walk on air or translate toadstools. In Nocturnes: Five Stories Of Music And Nightfall, Ishiguro’s first published collection of short fiction, failed musicians and lonely teachers try to discern the choices that undid them. Even when the despair is evident, the reasoning never quite comes clear.
Nocturnes’ sections are loosely connected, occasionally by character, but more often by theme. And they all contain music. The first, “Crooner,” details an evening spent with a formerly famous torch singer performing for his wife in Venice; it’s a romance curdled by experience. Love doesn’t get any easier in “Come Rain Or Come Shine.” Easily the collection’s funniest tale, it has a bachelor visiting married friends, discovering their marriage isn’t as sound as he thought, and getting in over his head almost immediately. “Malvern Hills” deals with a songwriter struggling against compromise, “Nocturne” focuses on a relationship between two plastic-surgery recipients, and “Cellists” has a mentor/apprentice dynamic that isn’t what it seems.
While it’s easy to tell that the leads of “Come Rain Or Come Shine” or “Malvern Hills” are giving a skewed account of events, it’s next to impossible to pinpoint what the “real” story is, which is one of Ishiguro’s great strengths. Like Rashômon, Nocturnes presents situations with endlessly compromised angles, questioning even the possibility of an objective view. And just like Rashômon, Nocturnes occasionally skirts the edge of nihilism; if there’s no center to anything, what’s the point in giving a damn? What holds it back is the sympathy Ishiguro clearly has for the meager lives he presents, and the paradoxical beauty of their summed-up failures. Nocturnes is like a flower that can only survive in the rain.