The Injured Past and the Convalescent Future: An Overview of Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World

This is my first interaction with any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels and I must say An Artist of the Floating World is a good read and it is for a myriad of reasons. First, the novel is written in the first person narrative technique but practically every incident in the book are reflections of the narrator, more like a recollection of events or memories.

The main character Ono, is a painter who has gained respect over the years. He was so respected that the novel begins by the narrator telling the reader how he bought a huge house at a fairly reduced price because of the respect he had wielded in his career and life generally. His life isn’t perfect as we see that there are rifts between himself and his daughters but carefully shrouded under euphemisms and half statements.

Kazuo Ishiguro

As the reader reads on, Ono reflects on how his past has become very powerful in turning the tides of his present and future realities. One of the realities he had to contend with is the fact that his past dealings in the government seem  to be the hindrance to his daughter, Noriko. Her marriage plans fell apart because the suitor’s family pulled out. Ono was a proponent of the war and with the war over, he is considered a traitor and faces hostility from former peers. This hostility is what Setsuko (Noriko’s sister) and her husband believe might have been the reason why Noriko’s marriage negotiations fell apart.

In Japan where marriage negotiations were the order of the day, Ono realizes that he would have to make peace with hostile friends and accept his mistakes. Marriage negotiations involves a middle man who is not a member of the two families mediate the relationship between the two families and also do investigations as to the backgrounds of both families. It is implied that Noriko lost a marriage prospect because of her father’s past. She shows resentment for her father though through witty statements and blames him for the delay in her getting married.

Beyond the personal struggles of Ono, the novel captures the realities of a fragile Japan just emerging from a war. The question of what the future holds for the fragile Japan nation and how to restructure their beliefs is what Ono asks himself in the novel. It is obvious that the younger generation did not share the beliefs of his own generation and sought a replacement of the old with the western democratic structure as against what was in place before- Communism.

Japan as a country had gone through a turbulent war especially with the US (Pearl Harbour) crisis and paid dearly for it. The citizens were left with the indelible marks of war. For example, Ono lost his son Kenji to the war and so did many others. It was not just about the loss of people but the loss of pleasure, culture and belongingness. The war had caused the Japanese more than they ever bargained for. The past was saddled with injuries, their future was still healing and their present filled with questions. Ishiguro explains this by vividly describing the loss of their pleasure district. It used to be a place where friends got together and discussed their nation as well as ideologies. But as time flew by with the end of the war, the pleasure district is destroyed and the new structures of office buildings show an overwhelming tilt to the West.

I smiled to myself as I watched these young office workers from my bench. Of course, at times, when I remember those brightly lit bars and all those people gathered beneath the lamps, laughing more boisterously perhaps than those young men yesterday, but with much the same goodheartedness, I feel a certain nostalgia for the past… (206)

Ono however realizes that there were mistakes made and did not also shy away from mentioning the suicides that were being committed by some who felt that they were the ones who caused the war and wanted to apologize with their deaths.

The book is written with expert skills as the narrator takes us through his thoughts coherently and in detail. Though often admitting he might not be recollecting things exactly as they were, he is able to narrate each event with clarity and precision. The book brings a smile to your face especially as you read about Ichiro, Ono’s grandson. He is a young boy who has great admiration for American movies and and for his grandfather. You might think that he is given a free hand to do as he pleases but he is a reminder of the generation coming that might not even understand the past of the country. The future is unknown and still forming itself from the injuries of the past. The nation is still healing.

Our nation, it seems whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well. (206)

The people are still finding themselves and trying to move on from its  pains. Japan is a subtle reminder of us all. We have had our tales of woes and regrets but we can take all these hurts and build for ourselves a better tomorrow. Noriko gets married at the end because like Ono, Noriko’s father in law did share in Ono’s ideals once. They are able to put the past as past so that their children can live in the future they want to create.

One must not forget to add that Ono makes the reader understand that the artist has a responsibility to his nation: the responsibility to push for good governance and to tell the stories that he must tell. Ono’s interaction with his father is very important. He challenges the wrong perception that the art is for the weak and the artist has no reputation. Ono in the end gains a reputation for being an artist, not just an artist of the floating world but an artist who stands for nationalism, patriotism and the good of his nation.

If you are still wondering whether to read this book or not… Lets help you make the decision. Read it.


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