I wrote this book review couple of months ago for an art magazine back home in Nepal. I wanted to post it on my blog as well.
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
During my university days, I went through a reading phase when I was fascinated by literary works of Japanese writers. Novels by Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Koji Sujuki and Shusaku Endo topped my reading list. That’s when I came across a book titled “Pale View of the Hills” by Kazuo Ishiguro. The book was intriguing and despite the disturbing plot about haunting memory of a Japanese widow, Ishiguro’s poignant yet peaceful narrative provided an edge to it. Instantly, this Japanese-born British novelist became one of my favourite authors. A couple of months back, I got hold of one of his older novels called “An Artist of the Floating World” in a book fair. Published in 1986, this book was the winner of Whitbread Book of the Year and was also shortlisted for the 1986 Booker’s Prize.
Set in a post-war Japan, this book travels through the time period of two years between October 1948 and June 1950 when Japan is rebuilding her cities after the devastation of World War II. The protagonist Masuji Ono is an eminent Japanese painter, who spends his retired days tending his garden, repairing his house and drinking with his old acquaintances in quiet dark bars of his former ‘pleasure district’. Written in first person, Ono’s narration follows his life and his relationship with his two daughters Setsuko and Noriko and his grandson Ichiro. Against the backdrop of changing perspectives of post war Japanese people, Ono’s personal and professional history slowly unfolds. His evening drinks at Mrs. Kawakami’s bar, his interactions with his grandson Ichiro and his nostalgia-filled conversations with his former acquaintances especially his student Shintaro reveal his childhood life, his early struggles as an artist, his professional life as an art teacher and a subtle hint of his controversial involvement in propaganda poster art in jingoistic Japan. In first half of the book, Ono’s narration portrays a very innocent picture of an aging artist who seems to be struggling with the miscommunication and generation gap with the younger generation. In war-era Japan, his works are very much admired for encouraging young Japanese men to fight for the dignity of their country. However after 1945 defeat, the post war Japanese young generation show anger towards older generation and people like Ono are discredited for being “a traitor.” The subdued conflict of ideas between Ono and his son-in-law reflects the changing scenario of Japanese social relationship where younger generation resents older generation for their active involvement in war which resulted in huge loss of lives (including Ono’s son).
Throughout the first section of the book, there’s a subtle hint that Ono’s previous controversial involvement is the reason behind the failure of his younger daughter Noriko’s marriage negotiation. So when Noriko enters a new marriage negotiation, she and her elder sister Setsuko keep hinting Ono to avoid repeating the past mistakes. Although at first Ono denies that his attitude has anything to do with it, his reflection of the past events reveals his inner psyche and personal guilt over the errors of his past. As the plot develops, readers are left in dilemma as Ono’s image continuously becomes more contradictory and confusing. Among his living contemporaries, he is a patriotic artist and respected ‘sensei’ whereas for younger generation, he is “one of the traitors.” Throughout the book, there is a lingering feeling that despite his constant effort to justify his actions as ‘patriotism’, even Ono himself is struggling to overcome his guilt, accept his past and recognize who he really is.
Like other novels of Ishiguro, memory serves as the central theme of this book. Flashbacks, nostalgic instances and conversations about past provide a strong basis to the plot. The book also depicts the art scene of Japan before and after war. It also deals with the issues of changing role of women in Japanese society, influence of American culture and Westernization among Japanese youth and the increasing gap between older and younger people in modern Japan.
Ishiguro’s writing style is beautiful and calm. His other books ‘A Pale View of Hills’, ‘Remains of the Day’ and ‘Nocturnes’ have left a lasting impression on my mind. The plots of his books aren’t very dramatic and the characters are usually modest. The latent theme of his books maybe dark and haunting, but the description is so gentle and understated that even the most disturbing of events, like war and its aftermath, can be perceived by readers in a peaceful way. So, although I would not describe this book as Ishiguro’s best, I would definitely recommend it for the sake of its brilliant portrayal of an aging Japanese artist’s life and the ever-changing ‘floating world’ he is in.