It is 1948, and Japan is slowly rebuilding itself in the aftermath of the Second World War. Retired artist Masuji Ono spends his days tending his garden and his two grown up daughters whilst reminiscing about the past. It sounds idyllic. And yet his thoughts turn to darker matters, and he becomes increasingly paranoid that his past might affect the lives of his daughters, particularly in the case of his youngest daughter who is currently involved in extensive marriage negotiations.
The novel is told entirely from Ono’s perspective, and meanders from the current day to events that happened many years ago, linking conversations and events that seem to bear little relation to each other. He focuses, somewhat egotistically, upon moments of praise and admiration, both for himself and his work, from teachers, contemporaries and his own pupils who are indebted to him for his guidance. He repeatedly states that he can’t remember the exact details of conversations or events, and I think that there’s a question of whether he’s dissembling to show himself in a positive light, or whether he genuinely can’t remember the detail. I suspect the former.
In An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro depicts a beautiful country whose culture is slowly becoming increasingly modern and ‘Americanised’. His grandson, for instance, plays at cowboys and “Popeye Sailorman” rather than Samurai or an equivalent Japanese figure / cartoon. Whilst not completely against change and the benefits that it may bring, I think that Ono struggles with it on a personal level. Prior to and even during the war, he was a celebrated artist, yet his work has no place in the new Japan. I think that Ono sees himself as belonging to the old world, and so the changes mean that his time has passed.
The moments in which he revisits the past take on another flavour as the novel progresses, and we come to understand the ways in which Ono’s art, which originally focussed on the “floating world” of Geishas and the associated night life, took on a political edge, and was even used as propaganda to support the Japanese war effort. Ono becomes increasingly paranoid about this aspect of his past, although his role was actually quite minor (his ego making more of it than he should), and as far as I can tell, his only real crime is patriotism – he might have been lauded had the outcome been different.
I went into An Artist of the Floating World with high expectations, yet I came away from it feeling somewhat indifferent to it. It’s a short novel, but felt a little like hard work to get through it. As with Never Let Me Go, I was left with the feeling that I should have enjoyed it more than I did. I didn’t dislike it, it just didn’t do anything for me, and I can’t really put my finger on why that is the case. I shall persevere with Ishiguro because, as I say, I do want to like his work, but I’m beginning to feel as though maybe it’s just not for me.