4 November 2011
Review 48: An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
"It is 1948. Japan is rebuilding her cities after the calamity of World War II, her people putting defeat behind them and looking to the future. The celebrated painter Masuji Ono fills his days attending to his garden, his house repairs, his two grown daughters and his grandson, and his evenings drinking with old associates in quiet lantern-lit bars. His should be a tranquil retirement. But as his memories continually return to the past - to a life and a career deeply touched by the rise of Japanese militarism - a dark shadow begins to grow over his serenity."
Story: As meandering and confusing as I have to expect, and love, from Ishiguro.
Protagonist: Not as empathetic as some of his other protagonists, Ishiguro leaves us guessing as to Ono's real motives.
Writing: Beautiful and unique but very much in the Ishiguro style.
Story: Masuji Ono is an eldery and retired Japanese painter living in a Japanese city, which I assumed to be Tokyo, shortly after the unconditional surrender of the country following the Second World War. Ono is living in a society that is trying to rebuild itself after a disastrous involvement in the war that has left many dead and a generation of young people bitter about involvement in the war the huge loss of life. The book follows Ono's meandering thoughts through a two year period (1948 - 1950) as he thinks back on his life and deals with his two daughters. The elder, Setsuko is married with a son and Ono resents her husband for convincing Setsuko of his 'modern ideas' and resentment of the older generation that advocated for the war. The younger, Noriko had her marriage negotiations fall through and is now entering new negotations with a well respected family and her and her sister keep dropping hints to Ono that he should ensure that his past attitudes and actions do not have a negative effect on Noriko's negotiations. Interpersed with the present day, Ono reflects back on his childhood, his first artists job, his years spent in a rural villa perfecting his craft and how his work evolved into the now controversial work encouraging young Japanese men to fight for the dignity of their country. He become involved in creating propagandist art that was hugely popular in jingoist Japan but was rapidly discredited after the surrender and those who created such work were considered to be traitors.
Characters: Memory is a common theme in much of Ishiguo's work and it features prominently here. Ono has recognisable elements of many of Ishiguro's characters and men reflecting back on past events is familar territory for him. At several points, Ono relates an event before qualifying that those exact words may not have been used and this makes us doubt many other things that Ono states. It reminded me of the recent Man Booker winner, The Sense of an Ending, as an old man reflects back on his life and what he might have changed about it. Ono begins the novel as an appealing protagonist but Ishiguro introduces several doubts towards the end of the novel about how accurately he is remembering past events and how clearly he sees himself. What he tells us about himself makes it clear that he is not really who her perceives himself to be. A certain event that clearly has had a huge impact on how Japan perceives Ono is passed over in a brief few sentences and gives a clue to the fact that Ono is perhaps a less reliable narrator than we initially supposed. An intriguing man and I must admit I would have liked a few more answers but was not surprised to have them lacking.
Many of the supporting characters are nuanced and rarely do characters fall ino clear or villian roles. His two daughers are an interesting look into young Japanese people of that era trying to put the past behind them and Ono's grandson, Ichiro demonstrates the huge American influence on Japan after the war. I could also have happily read more detail about many of Ono's artist colleagues.
Writing: I am huge fan of Ishiguro and he is one of my favourite living authors. He hasn't written a novel since 2005's Never Let Me Go and I am excited to see what he writes next. I find his writing beautiful and atmospheric and despite his novels often being contemplative and lacking in action I get very involved in them. He is adept at creating a feeling and drawing you into the world he has created. They are a true pleasure to read. Having said that, it's not my favourite of his novels and I preferred The Unconsoled, Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day although I think it is superior to When We Were Orphans. I often recommend his novels to friends with the comment that all his novels are very different however the more you read the more similarities you see which don't necessarily worsen the enjoyment of his novels but do lessen the sense of wonder I felt when I first discovered his writing and I felt again when I read The Unconsoled this year which is truly a unique novel.
Cover Art and Title: I very much like the title although a colleague who asked what I was reading remarked on how prentitious it sounded. However when I explained that it was literally a novel about an artist working in 'the floating world' he was somewhat appeased. The floating world was a term given to the decadent pleasure orientated lifestyle
The cover is beautiful and atmospheric. All recent editions of Ishiguro's novels have the same style of cover using yellows and greens and the same fonts which I must say look very pleasing all in a row on my bookshelf!
Try it if you liked: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes or The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Final thoughts: A thought-provoking and beautifully written novel very much in the Ishiguro style. To my mind, not his best novel but still leaps and bounds ahead of the majority of novels I've read this year.