One of the fascinating things about my 1,001 Books challenge is the sheer variety of writing styles and themes that the members of the list display and, in particular, the contrasts that are constantly being thrown up even with the random selection approach I am taking to book choice within the list.
An Artist of the Floating World and my last review, Blood Meridian, demonstrate this perfectly. The latter is a full-blooded, Hieronymous Bosch-like portrayal of violence with a writing style that almost has a physical presence, so solid is it. The former could not be more different, both in subject matter and style, being a graceful and subtle examination of perspective and belief.
Masuji Ono is an elderly artist, living in an unnamed city in Japan in the years immediately following its unconditional surrender and near destruction in World War II. Ono is a widower but has two daughters and a spirited grandson, on whom he dotes. He appears to have been a well-known and celebrated figure in Japan’s artistic world prior to the end of the world. Indeed, the first thing Ono tells us, the reader, is that he lives in a house that he could not have afforded, were it not for the fact that he had won an “auction of prestige” to buy the house at an affordable price.
Ono’s chief concern in the book is to arrange the marriage of his younger daughter, Noriko. A marriage had been arranged some time before the beginning of the novel but this had fallen through as, according to Ono, the prospective groom’s parents had felt themselves socially beneath Ono and his family. But, as the story begins to unfold, the dissonances start to appear and a very different picture emerges.
Ishiguro lets us see things solely through the eyes and mind of Ono and it is only in the actions of the other characters that Ono’s perspective is questioned and the truth is revealed. Having set us up to believe that Ono is some kind of artistic lion and a person to be reckoned with in society, Ishiguro then starts to drip feed an alternative view into the story. Ono, it becomes apparent, is, even by his own words, an unreliable witness to his own life. Indeed, at times, Ono himself adverts to this by admitting uncertainty about his own memories.
The novel flips back and forth from scenes of Ono’s personal history to his current life. Having started as a young artist of promise, he is accepted as a pupil by one of the city’s foremost artists, who specialises in creating images of “the floating world” of artists, geishas and pleasure seekers. Ono eventually moves away from this school and becomes a propagandist for Japan’s militaristic establishment.
At the end of the war, much of Japanese society went through a kind of psychological disintegration as the philosophy of superiority that had been at the heart of Japan’s aggressive imperialism was shown to be patently untrue. Some of the older generation, taking responsibility for leading Japan to defeat, committed suicide, whilst others, like Ono, simply refused to accept any responsibility or that there had been anything wrong in their beliefs and actions. A kind of unqualified acceptance of the American victors and their culture also took root amongst many, especially the young. In the novel, we see this in the views of Taro, Ono’s son-in-law and in the imitations of Popeye and the Lone Ranger by Ichiro, his grandson.
As the novel progresses, we see that Ono is not the respected figure he believes himself to be but is in fact a pariah, one of the old generation responsible for Japan’s defeat, a social undesirable. In the concern his daughters have about Noriko’s potential engagement, Ono is actually a potential stumbling block.
Ishiguro’s themes are the effects of defeat on the Japanese, the changing nature of the relationship between the generations and the unreliability of memory. His writing is elegant and subtle, without getting to the level of obliqueness that some Japanese writers seem to prefer.
His clever technique of allowing Ono to tell his story whilst using the other characters and external events to show up the self-delusion of Ono can be illustrated perfectly in one vignette where he encounters an old protégé, Kuroda, who had spent much of the war in prison, having been tortured for his political beliefs and is estranged from Ono. As they meet, Ono reflects that he had had cause only to make some criticisms of Kuroda to the authorities so that they could encourage him to mend his ways and that he hadn’t intended for Kuroda to be punished. The truth, as Kuroda points out, is that Ono had denounced Kuroda to the authorities which had led directly to his imprisonment. Now, of course, in the new Japan, Kuroda’s sufferings mean that he is seen as reliable and is on the way up, in contrast to Ono.
As the novel progresses, Ono begins to realise that his previous position and his association with the old ways may have an impact on Noriko’s marriage negotiations and takes a decision to accept his responsibility for the sufferings of Japan in the War. And it is here that Ishiguro plays his ace. The family of Noriko's potential spouse find Ono's confession odd and it later transpires that the father, a local notable has no recollection of ever having met Ono by contrast to Ono's claims of a real acquaintance. It becomes clear that, not only is Ono deluding himself in his belief that he is still a respected person and that his political views were correct but, in fact, he was never as important or as influential as he thinks.
Ishiguro gives us the image of the floating world of the pleasure seekers but his picture of post-War Japan is also a floating world in which beliefs shift and perspectives are altered. An Artist of the Floating World is a subtle and ingenious novel that I loved.