‘An Artist of the Floating World’ by Kazuo Ishiguro (Review)

While I was busy reviewing International Booker longlisters earlier this year, I selected a book from my shelves for a quick reread of something I’d already reviewed – only to discover half-way through that although I had read it since starting my site, it had been during one of my rare injury-induced blogging slumps, and I hadn’t actually written the post.  Alas, I had no time to rectify that at the time, but it’s been at the back of my mind (and highlighted on my Excel reading list) ever since, and today’s the day that this oversight gets corrected.  It’s well worth the wait, too – a clever book with an intriguing narrator looking back at an uncertain past.

An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro’s second novel, is narrated by Masuji Ono, an artist who has stepped back from public life and is now enjoying a peaceful retirement in his large house on the outskirts of the city.  The Second World War has been over for three years, and life is beginning to settle down.  Most of the damage to his house and garden has been repaired, and while his wife tragically died towards the end of the war, he has his grandson Ichiro to distract him from dwelling on the past too much.

Yet it would be wrong to say that events from before and during the war have been forgotten, and we soon realise that there’s a shadow hanging over the ageing artist.  For one thing, there’s the puzzling collapse of marriage negotiations for his younger daughter, Noriko, with whispers that the father might be to blame.  Another enigma is the way Ono is shunned by people he knew before the war, even by those who were among his closest pupils.  And why has he given up painting and hidden his work away from the world?  It seems as though there’s something Ono isn’t telling us, and we’ll need to be patient and allow the old man to tell the story at his own pace if we’re to get closer to the truth.

An Artist of the Floating World is a beautiful novel with a slightly bitter aftertaste.  The old man’s story is superbly paced, and what emerges from the artist’s meandering anecdotes is a tale of looking back at your life and wondering whether it was all worth it.  Ono is here reflecting on the decisions he made before the war, realising the mistakes he made, and wondering just how obvious they were at the time.

While the action is narrated in four sections occurring between 1948 and 1950, with the later events mainly concerning Ono and his family, the core of the novel consists of descriptions of his youth.  We are told of his early career and the steps he took on the path to becoming a talented artist, and our friend recalls the people he trained with and his views on art at the time.  As he starts to be pulled in a different direction to his teacher, wanting to explore a different style of art, he comes to a pivotal decision:

“Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light.  It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world.  My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.”
p.180 (Faber and Faber, 2005)

It’s a major step to turn his back on an art of aesthetics, recording entertainers and courtesans on canvas in the style of his teacher.  However, the bravery, or foolishness, here lies less in what he’s rejecting than in what he’s about to embrace.

The world of the older Ono is a society in flux, and the crushing defeat has meant major changes for Japan.  The arrival of the American occupiers leads to the older generations being ‘encouraged’ to step back, and (this being Japan…) these pre-war leaders occasionally take drastic steps to remove themselves from the scene.  The younger generations are certainly relieved that they’re able to start rebuilding the nation with something of a clean slate, but there’s a sense that the time has come to move beyond scapegoats.  Just how far should people go to expiate their guilt – and is anyone who supported the war effort now to be purged?

Another major area of change is in the domestic arena.  Ono is nominally the head of his extended family, yet there’s a distinct sense that he’s not really in charge.  His daughters are no longer afraid to disagree with and stand up to him, and the artist frequently mentions the disdain shown by his son-in-law, a man who will forever be marked by his experiences in Manchuria.  Even little Ichiro seems to walk all over his grandfather at times, a boy growing up influenced by American culture, and far more likely to be Popeye or a cowboy in his games than a samurai.

And yet, the reader must be on their guard when making assumptions, as the beauty of An Artist of the Floating World lies in Ishiguro’s unreliable narrator.  Ono is constantly changing his mind and second-guessing his words, and it’s very much a case of trying to read things into what he doesn’t say rather than taking these words at face value.  Whether he’s being self-deprecating or talking up his status, emphasising his guilt or defending his behaviour, we’re aware that we only have his word for it, and when he continually misremembers, then corrects himself, it’s hard to believe everything he says.  In fact, we can never be entirely sure whether the artist is a generous old man who’s being hard on himself or a pompous fool with a shady past.

Of course, from the first few pages, what intrigues the reader is the question of what exactly Ono did during the war, and here, too, we’re kept guessing.  While we know something’s not quite right, we’re not told exactly what until rather late in the piece, and our reliance on Ono, who seems determined to speak in riddles, leads us to swing in our views. At times we suspect him of serious war crimes, at others of simple misjudgements that should really be forgotten.  In fact, the truth my be that even he’s not entirely sure how far he’s to blame and is painting(!) himself as far more culpable than is really the case.

Whatever you might make of our elderly friend, An Artist of the Floating World is a well-written, absorbing novel that keeps the reader guessing.  Even at the end, there’s still a lot unsaid, and I, for one, couldn’t say whether Ono’s apologies are sincere.  I’m not one of those readers that lumps Ishiguro’s work in with Japanese literature, but there are definite parallels with Japanese writing in the ambiguity of the text, even if it’s a very English style of writing.  I enjoyed it, as I’ve enjoyed all of his books, and with a new novel, Klara and the Sun, set to be released next year, I suspect I’ll be revisiting several of them over the next few months.

Which means I’ll probably have to review them properly, too 😉

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