An Artist of the Floating World
The book raises interesting questions. What is it like to lose a World War? And what is it like to have to look unflinchingly at your country’s past and your role in it and acknowledge that you and your country might have been wrong? And should an artist have a political role at all?
Masuji Ono is the painter and narrator who is at present leading a quiet retired life with his unmarried daughter in a Japanese city that hasn’t escaped the ravages of war. He spends his days tending to his home and garden and going out to the local bar with his drinking buddy. An occasional visit by his married daughter and her young son and the marriage talks for his younger daughter provide the only ‘events’ in his life. Yet these events precipitate the onset of darker memories, of a time when Ono was a renowned painter, used in the Japanese imperial war machine. Of a time when he denounced his teacher and his pupil, artists of the ‘floating world’ (‘the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink’, a transient world of beauty worth celebrating) in the cause of a narrow nationalism. Ono, of course, grows to believe that art needs to go beyond the world of pleasure and seek something more tangible and purposeful. And so he becomes a part of the Japanese propaganda machine urging his countrymen to build an empire.
What struck me most about the story was the unabashed readiness of post-war Japanese society to accept that the past is an embarrassment. A whole nation goes to war, and 10 years later, you accept you were wrong? Is it that easy? Isn’t there a kernel of resentment against the victors? Apparently not, as the new generation channels its resentment towards the older Japanese who led them to the war.
Ishiguro’s simple and straightforward writing as usual is able to evoke a time and place that is completely alien to the reader. The portrayal of Japanese society in the first half of the century is detailed – the round-about way of approaching delicate matters in dialogue, the extreme formality in father-son/ teacher-pupil relationships, the preponderance of suicide. Ishiguro has of course, never lived in