An Artist of the Floating World

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Post-war Japan is the milieu. The protagonist and narrator is an aging painter, once renowned in Imperial Japan, now denounced in the period of the American occupation.

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.

Japan loses the war, of course, America brings democracy to the country and Ono is discredited. His past becomes an embarrassment to his daughters and he is forced to confront it. It is not easy, yet he is honest enough to be able to be able to come to terms with the fact that he and his generation might have been wrong. “I accept that much of what I did was ultimately harmful to our nation, that mine was part of an influence that resulted in untold suffering for our own people….All I can say is that at the time I acted in good faith.” It is a recognition of the faults of a generation and at the same time a justification for it.

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 Japan past his 5th year. Yet his representation of post-war Japan reads authentic to someone who has never been to Japan. It is strange that the last book I read was a Murakami – an authentic Japanese writer who writes of a Japan that could have been any country in the world (the place is quite incidental to the plot and characters). And here is Ishiguro, an English writer who tells a story that could be set in no country but Japan.


UL said…
I like this story, more so than the "Norwegian Wood". To admit one's mistakes is a sure path to success. That says so much about the people of Japan and what we could learn from them. I am not at all surprised by the difference in writing between Ishiguro and Murakami. It is as simple as the one who left and the other who stays. To Ishiguro, his culture and traditions are unique as he is living in a different world altogether. Whereas to Murakami, who is so used to it, he doesn’t find the need to treasure it or expose it. I suppose grass is always greener on the other side.
small talk said…
I think its just 2 writers who approach their stories very differently. I don't think it's got anything to do with where they live. Ishiguro's novels are specific to a time and place. His Remains of the Day has a very English setting. And could not have been set in any other place but upper class England. In this case, it just happens to be Japan. In When We Were Orphans, he goes to China.

Murakami on the other hand sees his characters as pretty universal. He is much more concerned with their inner lives and universal emotions of love, loss and alienation and his characters are never really too affected by world events. His setting therefore tends to be very 'by the way'.

On admisssion of guilt, did Japan really have a choice? There were nuclear bombs dropped on them, remember?
UL said…
You are probably right, my knowledge is purely based on your posting. I haven't read either of them, so mine was mere speculation, nothing more.
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