Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Review: An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro
8.5/10, a journey through the past and present of post-war Japan from the point of view of an elderly painter

Masuji Ono, a retired painter living in post-war Japan, is anxious for his younger daughter, Noriko, to be married. She is twenty-six, and one set of negotiations has already fallen through. Setsuko, his elder daughter, is happily married with a son, and the two of them visit Noriko and Ono frequently. Ono was a painter of high regard before the Second World War, but has not worked since the disastrous ending of the war.

We learn about this in flashback and memory, as Ono tries to understand the cause of his daughters’ attitudes toward him through his memory of events. He frequents a local bar and has some friends there, but slowly they all disappear. He remembers his break from his own teacher, who wanted only to paint images of pleasurable areas in the entertainment district–the so-called “Floating World.” Ono prefers to paint images of important things, things that will help Japan on the path to greatness, and in fact that path leads him to some recognition and prominence.

But the war has changed everything. We don’t learn this in plain revelation; instead, we have to come to understand it in the way Ono does. We begin with his preconceptions and we see, perhaps somewhat before he does, that they are no longer valid. Ultimately, he finds, his own world was no more permanent than the “floating world” he derided.

As with most of Ishiguro’s work, the journey is the real pleasure. There are many similarities between “Floating World” and his next novel, “The Remains Of The Day,” both being reminisces of men after wartime whose certainty in their decisions slowly erodes. But where “Remains” has a powerful revelatory ending (one of my favorite things in any book ever), “Floating World” leaves the revelation up to the reader to parse.

It is, as always, a marvel that this narrative holds together as well as it does, given how much it rambles and wanders. Ishiguro never loses track of what’s important, though, and he establishes his characters with swift, sure strokes, building up mystery around them. Does Ono’s prize pupil hate him for his pre-war work, or is there another reason? Ono’s wife and son were killed in the war, but who feels that more acutely, himself or his daughters? What is the reason the marriage negotiations broke down for Noriko, and will the current ones go well?

Some of the lesser questions go unanswered, but not in Ono’s mind. He is a beautifully drawn character struggling to accept the changes in his world and to bear his responsibility for them. While this is not quite up to “Remains of the Day” or “Never Let Me Go,” it is certainly a worthwhile and engaging read.

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