Inspiring Older Readers
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
I’m really reluctant to do this because the idea of ‘ranking’ books is something I usually find unhelpful or just plain impossible but, on this occasion, I’m prepared to say that Kazuo Ishiguro’s beautifully written, haunting and troubling An Artist of the Floating World could well be the best book I’ve read this year. I realise that this might be a stupid hostage to fortune but it’s the best way I can think of to underscore just how much I enjoyed reading this book.
An Artist of the Floating World was Ishiguro’s second novel, published in 1986 and which in many ways deals with issues and themes that will appear again, transformed but essentially similar, in his hugely successful breakthrough novel, The Remains of the Day. But it would be a mistake to think of this earlier book as just a precursor of something else – in fact I personally found it more powerful and more subversive than it’s more famous successor.
Having said that it’s powerful, there’s also a remarkable sense of a haunting calmness and pending menace about the book. It is set in the immediate years following the Second World War when Japan, following its surrender, is still occupied by US forces. The story will be told through his eyes of Masuji Ono, an artist who had achieved modest fame before the war and subsequently a level of notoriety during it for his work as what was essentially a propaganda artist..
But Ono, now retired and seeking to come to terms with the new age Japan will be entering into, is an unreliable narrator – his memories are so hedged around with buts and maybes that it becomes impossible for us to know what is truthful recollection and what is rationalisation. Typically he will fall back on the passage of time as a way of excusing his vagueness or obfuscation:
"Of course, that is all a matter of many years ago now and I cannot vouch that those were my exact words that morning."
But is he lying to us or maybe even to himself? The suspicion hangs heavily in the air.
Ishiguro slowly unwraps Ono’s story as the painter tries to deal with the consequences of his role in the war – a matter made especially pressing by the inter-family negotiations that are ongoing over the marriage of his daughter. This is a burden that falls on him because of the death in the war of his wife and older son and because he is aware that honour and reputation will be a factor in his daughter being accepted as a suitable marriage partner.
As Ono’s tale unfolds we discover that his reputation is under question not simply because he decided to throw in his lot with the ultra-patriotic cause of Japanese nationalism but because he also played the role of advisor to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities, and betrayed one of his proteges to the secret police. Now with the war over and political prisoners released, the full horror of what that betrayal meant is beginning to come home to roost,
Prior to the war Ono had been an apprentice in ukiyo-e – a tradition that became known as The Floating World. It's a highly formulaic and distinctive style where (now famous) artists like Hokusai and Horoshige would use woodblock prints and paintings to depict the world of sensual pleasure in the form female beauties, prostitutes, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers and erotica. It's a style that was hugely influential on Western art at the end of the 19th century and informed the work of the Impressionist school. But, having abandoned tradition for the new Imperialism, Ono finds his world floating in an entirely different way – adrift on a sea of uncertainty, he struggles to find an anchor and has to confront an upcoming generation which has very different ideas and looks to the West for inspiration rather than to Japan's past. Afloat in a world of uncertainty, Ono's unreliable internal monologue sees him looking for justification and validity and finding that those things aren’t easy to find and will ultimately necessitate him having to readjust his whole view of the world.
As Robert McCrum notes in his review of the book published by The Guardian in 2015:
“The tragedy implicit in the book is that Ono’s long digressions into the past revert, inexorably, to the troubles of the present. His reminiscences are teasingly equivocal…However, the truth is ultimately laid bare. Ono is forced to revise his memories, with increasingly wretched personal recognition. “I am not one of those,” he says towards the heartbreaking finale, “who are afraid to admit to the shortcomings of past achievements.”
The book is a masterpiece that confronts issues of guilt and redemption at a personal and national level, examines notions of loyalty and social responsibility and picks up on the difficulties of confronting both the past and future. I’m annoyed with myself that it’s taken me so long to find it – it’s most certainly one I’ll return again and one that I think that will keep on unwrapping its layers every time you pick it up.