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Originally published Sunday, October 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Ishiguro's 'Nocturnes': Stories of music and men show a master at work

Kazuo Ishiguro's "Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall" collects five stories by the celebrated author ("The Remains of the Day"). Each story tells the tale of a young or middle-aged man with an ear for melody, but not much else.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall"

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Knopf, 240 pp., $25

Kazuo Ishiguro likes to tell stories in the first person. His best-known work, "The Remains of the Day," is propelled by the voice and vantage of an English butler whose attention to detail blurs his grasp of the bigger picture. Stevens is the perfect "unreliable narrator," revealing the holes in his reasoning even as he articulates the absolute logic with which he manages his world.

The same blinkered perspective is used to different ends in Ishiguro's latest effort, a short-story collection grouped together under the moody title "Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall." The book is a minor contribution to a major writing career — yet, in both craft and substance "Nocturnes" reveals a master at work.

In each story, Ishiguro tells the tale of a young or middle-aged man with an ear for melody but not much else. The first-person perspective makes their talent hard to gauge, but that's irrelevant. More important is that each of them seems rootless and clueless in a world that rewards savvy, linked-in operators.

The title story, about a saxophonist named Steve, depicts a tiny practice room soundproofed with foam, egg cartons and old padded envelopes — a claustrophobic image that sums up the inward focus of Steve's art. Badgered by his wife and manager, Steve reluctantly consents to have his face redone in hopes of advancing his career. But during his recuperation at a fancy hotel, his relationship with the celebrity patient next door confirms how extraneous his plastic surgery was. "The week before, I'd been a jazz musician," he laments. "Now I was just another pathetic hustler."

This tension between commercial and critical success keeps popping up in these stories, suggesting how finely tuned Ishiguro might be to the struggle. But that doesn't mean he comes down on the side of art. Consider the young guitarist who's bumming off his sister and brother-in-law ("Malvern Hills"). When she asks him to stop playing so that her husband can have some quiet, he erupts.

" 'What Geoff needs to realize,' I said, 'is that just as he's got his work to do, I've got mine.'

"My sister seemed to think about this. Then she did a big sigh. 'I don't think I ought to report that back to Geoff.'

" 'Why not? Why don't you? It's time he got the message.' "

The sister can't bring herself to say what the reader perceives: No, buddy, it's you who needs to get a message. It's the unreliable narrator at work.

More reliable is the sax player who makes his living in Italy's tourist towns and spots Tibor, the Hungarian cellist he once played with ("Cellists"). This is because he knows the truth that his colleague can't admit: After an American traveler encouraged Tibor to believe his gifts transcended the hotel circuit, he couldn't break out of it and became embittered. Beware thoughtless people bearing free counsel and compliments.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."

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