§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro is fast becoming one of my favorite contemporary novelists. So far I've liked everything I've read by him (though I didn't like his most recent, Never Let Me Go, quite as well). I love the narrator in his books. He's a master at imagining a really complex character into being (Stevens in Remains of the Day, Christopher in When We Were Orphans, Kathy in Never Let me Go, and Ono in this one) and then writing the whole book from that point of view, following the character over a period of time and never missing a beat. All are at least somewhat unreliable narrators which allows Ishiguro to project multiple points of view. There are two earlier ones I haven't read (The Unconsoled and A Pale View of Hills) and I plan to find those soon. In many ways he's the contemporary British writer who's stood up best for me over a number of works.

The Artist of the Floating World is told entirely from the point of view of a Japanese artist after World War II. The artist used his art for propaganda purposes during the war and recognizes that he's looked down on in some ways because of that. He lost his wife in a bombing and his son in the war and now lives with one unmarried daughter. At first he was worried that his reputation for complicity in the war effort would adversely affect his daughter's marriage chances. It seems already to have caused one marriage negotiation to have been called off. Ono writes (or narrates) at four different times between 1948 and 1950, with several forays into the past as he recounts his version of events. Like all Ishiguro narrators, Ono is somewhat unreliable and the further into the novel you get, the more you see more going on behind his apparently open and honest narrative. That's partly because of the formal nature of Japanese personal interactions, partly due to Ono's ability to deceive himself, and partly due to his fear that he's implicated in war crimes or that other people think he is. We hear about some actions of his that are at least suspect—when he caused a student and colleague to be questioned (and some torture may have been the result). He may even see himself as more guilty than those around him do.

When the daughter’s second marriage negotiation concludes successfully, Ono’s daughters, who were reluctantly bringing up the past because it was possibly impinging on the present, retreat into a formal relationship with their father in which he is not challenged. His friend from the war years, with whom he can talk about the past honestly, dies, and we see Ono isolated by experiences that his country as a whole just wants to forget.

By the way, "the floating world" is the world of pleasure—geishas, drinking, carousing till all hours—that artists before the war were associated with. Ono carefully characterizes pleasure zones of the city then and now in the novel and the reader sees his nostalgia for the "floating world" of the past which further isolates him in the present. "The floating world" may be another casualty of the war. I suspect it’s not just the carousing that is curtailed in the present, but the talk about art and ideas the artists occupied themselves with.


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