Friday, 28 July 2017

Book Review: An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro Very popular subjects of the famous Japanese colour woodblock prints from the seventeenth century on are scenes from ephemeral life in the pleasure districts which accounts for their being called ukiyo-e (浮世絵), i.e. “pictures of the floating world”. But life is in constant flow elsewhere too: πάντα ῥεῖ. In turbulent times, the flow even seems to accelerate and turn into a maelstrom that threatens to crush whatever or whoever gets caught in the strong current. In 1948, once famous painter Masuji Ono from An Artist of the Floating World by Japanese-English writer Kazuo Ishiguro finds himself stranded in a world where his art work has become an unwanted reminder of totalitarian ideals that led the Japanese Empire into disaster and where his daughter is no suitable match for any decent man because of his shameful part in the terror before and during the war. As he looks back, time passes, wounds heal and bitterness fades.

Kazuo Ishiguro (石黒 一雄) was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in November 1954, but grew up in Guildford, England, U.K., as from 1960 when the family moved there. He studied English and Philosophy at the University of Kent and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. In 1982 he made his successful debut as a novelist with award-winning A Pale View of Hills. Five other much praised novels have followed since, namely An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Remains of the Day (1989), The Unconsoled (1995), When We Were Orphans (2000), Never Let Me Go (2005), and The Buried Giant (2015). The author also wrote some short fiction, screenplays and song lyrics. In 2017, the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Kazuo Ishiguro lives in London, England, U.K., with wife and daughter.

In his prime, Masuji Ono was a painter of renown in Japan, but he put his work into the service of politics instead of becoming An Artist of the Floating World like his master Seiji Moriyama aka Mori-san.
“[…] The label, ‘the modern Utamaro’, was often applied to our teacher in those days, and although this was a title conferred all too readily then on any competent artist who specialised in portraying pleasure district women, it tends to sum up Mori-san's concerns rather well. For Mori-san was consciously trying to ‘modernise’ the Utamaro tradition; […] his work was full of European influences, […]”
In October 1948, after the disaster of World War II that cost the lives of his wife and his only son, all his glory is gone and his art is discredited as propaganda. Moreover, people in the unnamed city blame him for having been an informer for the totalitarian regime and for not having had the decency to commit suicide as an act of apology. His bad reputation already thwarted several attempts to find a husband for his younger daughter Noriko who is twenty-six years old and beginning to worry that she might be doomed to remain unmarried. So far, all marriage negotiations failed and those under way when his other daughter Setsuko comes for a visit with her eight-year-old son Ichiro too are about to be broken off. Masuji Ono passes much time with his vivacious grandson who has many questions. When Ichiro asks him why he had to retire given that he used to be a celebrated artist, he begins to think about his life. He gets in touch with several people he once knew or even was friends with. Most treat him politely, but Masuji Ono realises that none of them is happy to see him except Chishu Matsuda who initiated him in politics. He also enters new marriage negotiations with an old acquaintance and art critic. During one of the formal meetings, Masuji Ono accepts his responsibility for the first time:
“There are some who would say it is people like myself who are responsible for the terrible things that happened to this nation of ours. As far as I am concerned, I freely admit I made many mistakes. I accept that much of what I did was ultimately harmful to our nation, that mine was part of an influence that resulted in untold suffering for our own people. […] I admit this quite readily. All I can say is that at the time I acted in good faith. I believed in all sincerity I was achieving good for my fellow countrymen. […]”
As time passes, the wounds of the war begin to heal and the rancour of people to fade. By June 1950, Noriko is married and with child.

In An Artist of the Floating World the author, who was born years after the time frame of his novel, gives one of many Japanese men with a (now) shameful pre-war and war past a voice. The first-person narrator looks back on his life as painter who promoted and profited from the rise of the totalitarian regime leading Japan into World War II. His reminiscences of seven years as disciple of Seiji Moriyama who cared only about capturing beauty show a decadent society as starting point for his ideological aberration. But he isn’t able to openly face the consequences of his actions because it would be too painful to admit the guilt that he feels in his subconscious. Outside perspectives expressed in many dialogues juxtapose the narrator’s own view of events that thus reveal different stages of denial and “distorted” memory. In the end, he recognises having made mistakes, though always in good faith as he emphasises to protect his self-esteem. The swiftly modernising, i.e. Westernising Japanese society (represented especially by the unruly grandson) clearly rejects his outdated ways and values. Imaginary scene as well as characters appear very authentic throughout. The language is unpretentious and a pleasure to read.

Loving the colour woodblock prints that the Japanese so originally refer to as ukiyo-e (浮世絵), it was only natural that sooner or later I would read An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. It wasn’t the historical novel that I had expected, but maybe I liked it even better because it deals with the more recent past of the Japanese variant of totalitarianism and of World War II. Unlike other novels touching the topic (»»» read my review of Twenty-four Eyes by Tsuboi Sakae), however, it focuses on the artist’s responsibility as a political being. It’s known that notably dictators and other regime leaders like to use art as a means to propagate their messages. Some artists willingly submit to the game for the sake of quick fame, while others don’t… and at long last become immortal if they are outstanding. In a nutshell: a great novel that undeniably deserves my recommendation!

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This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this review. I have never grasped what the novel was about. I love Ishiguro's writing. Also the story ties in with The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, recently read and reviewed:


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