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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

You Talkin' To Me?

In the third story of Nocturnes, Malvern Hills, we immediately come on a first-person narrator who is never named. “I’d spent the spring in London, and all in all, even if I hadn’t achieved everything I’d set out to, it had been an exciting interlude.” We learn that this fellow feels the weeks are “slipping by” and that he’s “vaguely paranoid about running into his former university friends, asking “how I was getting on since leaving the course to seek “fame and fortune”…with a very few exceptions—none of them was capable of grasping what was or wasn’t, for me at this particular point, a “successful” few months.”

We learn that the narrator is a musician—like all the narrators in the book—and that he has unsuccessfully been trying to find work. He’s gone on many auditions and had not been hired. Instead of doing covers (which is what is wanted), he performs his own songs and feels resentful at the lack of recognition he’s getting. When he angrily asks at one audition why the band isn’t hiring him, he receives the answer, “No offence, mate, It’s just that there are so many wankers going around writing songs.”

The narrator apparently doesn’t believe he’s a wanker and dismisses this attitude as “stupidity.”

He decides to spend the summer at his sister and brother-in-law’s B&B in the Malvern Hills, a scenic parkland in the country. There’s a sense that he is going there to get away from his problems; he has fond memories of the place. “That summer, though, I felt this was the most beautiful place in the world; that in many ways I’d come from and belonged to the hills.” We learn that, in the way of background, his parents divorced when he was a child, and the family house was sold. In short, he is adrift although has difficulty admitting it.

Here we have this story’s iteration of one of the themes of the book: the yearnings that exiles feel toward home.

Mention is also made that his sister and brother-in-law expect him to work in exchange for room and board. This arrangement, “suited me just fine because it meant I couldn’t be expected to work too hard…The work was easy enough—I was especially good at making sandwiches—and I sometimes had to keep reminding myself of my main objective in coming out to the country in the first place: that’s to say, I was going to write a brand-new batch of songs ready for my return to London.”

It should be noted that this element is a steady one for Ishiguro—a story of someone working for someone else, a servant or assistant, in this case in a resentful and passive-aggressive way.

The main part of the story concerns the narrator’s encounter with a Swiss couple, Tilo and Sonja, who come into the restaurant. They are on vacation and staying nearby so that the narrator runs into them as they hike in the hills. They overhear the narrator playing one of his songs and praise it, wanting to hear more. They reveal they are musicians who have gradually given up some of their original musical dreams to make money by playing pop songs in restaurants.

(including ABBA).

However, the couple seem to be polarized, in that Tilo, the husband, is completely positive about everything: the lunch they have at the B&B, their lodgings, the vacation they’re on, the state of their career, and even the apparent neglect from their adult son who doesn’t return their phone calls. Sonja, the wife, is equally negative about all these things, complaining angrily about the vacation, their lifestyle, and their son.

Eventually, the narrator (who seems oblivious to the couple’s discord) runs into Sonja who has just had an argument with her husband. Tilo has gone alone for a hike, saying the couple should probably break-up because they are so different. Sonja, who doesn’t want this, is upset and tries to escape her usual pessimism to encourage the narrator to pursue his musical dreams. They story ends with the narrator seeing Tilo at a distance and thinking he seems to be “re-appraising” the hills. The narrator concludes he needs to work more on the bridge of the song he’s writing.


What we have here is not only the usual theme of an exiled narrator musician who is unreliable in his judgements, but also the consistent scenario of the narrator faced with a married couple—in this case, Tilo and Sonja—who are transforming. The narrator doesn’t seem to transform and appears rather clueless about the depths (or shallowness) of his talent. In a self-centered way, he angrily rejects any criticism and misreads the expectations of his sister and brother-in-law.

If we think about the first two stories, Crooner and Come Rain or Come Shine, we may recall that each narrator’s chief concern is the story he’s telling his audience—not necessarily the story we the readers are getting. These narrators are concerned with how they come off, their appearances. Jan, in Crooner, wants to tell the story of how he helped the famous musician Tony Gardner, and how Tony complimented his talent. Ray, in Come Rain or Come Shine, shows himself just needing comfort as he visits his somewhat dense and troublesome friends, and how he will go to extreme lengths to get it.

The narrators are talking to their imagined narratees, not to us. They want to convince their narratees and see them as sympathetic to their problems.

The narrator of Malvern Hills also wants a respite from the stupidity and rejection he faces. He tells the story of Sonja and Tilo but is not really concerned with their pain, only that they seem to appreciate his talent. (much like Jan). What we the readers receive from the implied author, just as in the other stories, is a tale of tragedy about long term lovers failing (to various degrees) to work out their differences, a story told by an oblivious narrator.

So is he under-reading or under-reporting? Under-reading, I think. He is oblivious to his own narcissism and to the complexities of others.

Perhaps the ending does represent some change though. After thinking that Tilo must be re-appraising things, the narrator decides maybe the bridge of his song needs a little more work.

Till next time.

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