An Artist of the Floating World by Kasuo Ishiguro

artistIn this book, Ishiguro brings alive post-war Japan from the Japanese perspective. It focuses on the life of Masuji Ono, an artist, father and grandfather. Set in the backdrop of a changing Japanese society, he retells his personal history in excerpts between descriptions of the marriage negotiations for his second daughter. Through these insights, we learn of his family history, his personal and professional history and Japan’s own history.

This is an intimate portrayal of a relationship between a father and his daughters, highlighting the miscommunication that generational differences can cause. The unwritten suggestion is that Ono’s relationship with his son would have been easier, had he survived the war and that his wife, had she too survived, would have placated his daughters. It is backed by a changing world where the alienation of the older generation is all the more acute as Japan progresses through not just modernisation but westernisation. There is an constant echo of the country’s collective guilt over acts during the war years in Ono’s personal guilt over his own past. It is clear that Ono’s view of his own past and guilt is coloured by his present day feelings – the reader is left unsure whether Ono is giving an accurate representation of the opinions and actions of others or merely creating ‘demons’ from his personal view of his culpability.

This personal struggle for justification and absolution is set as a counterpoint to a sensitive portrayal of social relationships in Japan at the time. At all times, the distance between the old and the young is apparent; both socially as a result of the old social structures in Japan and in a temporal sense – the young being more forward and westward thinking, happy to devolve themselves from the Japan of the war years in the name of progress. There is also a sense of anger amongst the young about the lost generation of their peers who, like Ono’s son, never survived the war.

This is a quiet work of brilliance. Ishiguro uses understated prose to convey atmosphere and skilfully draw the main characters. It has certainly moved me to read more of his work and so this is definitely to be recommended.

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