At present I’m reveling in the economic prose of a slim volume of five short stories, each of which is bathed in music, a particular instrument — a sax, a cello, an electric and acoustic guitar — or bluesy songs from the 1950s.

The collection is titled Nocturnes after that hazy time when dusk settles and memories can easily be enveloped, softened or bleed into darkness. The quintet of stories could be likened to intimate musical quintets as they flow with the aspirations and fears of young musicians, café musicians, desperately fading stars and aged dreamers, all of whom are at a moment of reckoning with love and loss. “Most are struggling to keep alive a sense of life’s romance as relationships founder and youthful hope recedes.”

 

This is a masterly collection by last year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro. Each is like the beginning of an intriguing novel that draws you into its depths only to leave you stranded, dangling in mid-air, wanting more.

 

As in his novels each vignette has “… characters that are pathologically unreliable. They tend to deceive rather than reveal themselves through story telling. His novels are not attempts to render the past convincingly, but rather to pursue how individuals interpret and (re)construct their lives through history.”

 

The Swedish Academy said when it presented his prize:

 

Ishiguro’s novels are preoccupied by memories, their potential to digress and distort, to forget and to silence, and above all to haunt. His protagonists seek to overcome the chasms and absences by making sense of the past through acts of remembrance… He isn’t out to redeem the past, he is exploring what you have to forget in order to survive in the first place as an individual or as a society.

 

Since the 2017 announcement I’ve been gradually discovering and re-reading the books that make up Ishiguro’s body of literary work, aided by a scholarly, 2017 essay about the author’s novels by James D Proctor — parts of which I’ve parenthesized or cribbed.

 

Atomic Bombs

 

Ishiguru was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954. His mother was 18 when the Americans dropped their second atomic bomb on the city at noon, August 9, 1945. She was one of the lucky survivors. Ishiguru was, naturally, psychologically scarred by the stories of memories of the blasts that tore apart the psyche of his nation. His family moved to England when he was six, when his oceanographer father accepted a University post there and his first two novels relate to the bomb blasts and are psychological portraits of how characters cope with trauma.

 

In A Pale View of the Hills the main character Etsuko narrates the story from her home in England where one of her daughters committed suicide. Her memories of the past are stirred up when her other daughter arrives from Japan. By the end of the novel the reader is unsure as to the reality of the characters or if they are all facades of the narrator.

 

In the very powerful An Artist of the Floating World, Ono wanders through the skeleton of his bombed home where his wife lays dead and where the memories of his son who recently died fighting in China, hover. He seems detached from these personal losses as he wanders around the ruins, his traumatized mind offering glimpses and flashbacks into dislocated past incidents.

 

Ishiguro’s third novel, Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day, remains the one most commonly associated with the writer and is his departure point from atomic catastrophe. This time into the decaying world of English aristocracy.

 

Ishiguro is not an author to be tied to one fictive genre. Another Booker shortlister, Never Let Me Go, is set in an experimental school where clones are reared so that their organs may be harvested. His 2015 epic, The Buried Giant, is set in sixth-century Britain when the original Britons are mingling and counter punching with Anglo Saxons invading from northern Europe.

 

Truong Hoang is behind the bookshop, Bookworm. For more info click on bookwormhanoi.com or visit their shop at 44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh, Hanoi.

 

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