Sunday, November 9, 2014

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World is narrated by the artist, Masuji Ono. According to his own recollections, he was a noted artist both before and during World War II. His son and wife were killed in the war, but his two daughters survived. Now, a few years after the war's end, his reputation may be causing difficulties for his daughter Noriko. The first set of negotiations to arrange a marriage for her broke down; Masuji claims it is because the prospective groom's parents realized he was not worthy of Noriko, but his older daughter Sasuke suggests it might have been due to his activities during the war.

As a young artist, Ono broke away from his mentor, who specialized in romanticized depictions of the pleasure quarter and who taught his students European techniques. Ono returned to more traditional Japanese forms, applying them to nationalistic content. He became a member of a committee that ferreted out the unpatriotic; in that role, he informed on one of his own former students, who was imprisoned and tortured. Throughout the war, he created visual propaganda for the government.

In postwar Japan, however, propagandists for imperial Japan are not regarded positively, especially among the young. The defeat in the war and the need to embrace democracy to placate the Americans combine to tarnish the reputation of people like Ono. An acquaintance who wrote nationalistic songs has recently committed suicide. Ono is aware of the way in which people regard him. During a dinner with a second family considering marrying their son to Noriko, Ono undertakes a rambling discourse on the mistakes he made in his career; his family members and the prospective in-laws are disconcerted by this performance, but the marriage does take place. A year later, Ono's daughters seem determined to ignore the topic of their father's career as they make their way in an increasingly Westernized Japan.

Masuji Ono is a classic unreliable narrator. After long descriptions of conversations, he often asserts that he may not be remembering what was said correctly. In fact, the words he has attributed to someone else, he says, sound a lot like something he would say. It's impossible to tell how well-regarded or influential he truly was or how much he actually regrets his support for Japanese imperialism. His story does, however, draw the reader into consideration of the role of the arts in war, how culture and relationships change among the defeated, and how individuals cope with regrets as they age and the world changes.

I listened to this book and did not find narrator David Case's overly posh British accent an aid to attention/understanding. In fact, I think I may have to read the book in print in order to fully appreciate Ishiguro's work. The book's themes are worth more careful consideration.

Favorite passage:
There is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one's life.

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