16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 3 – St. Martin’s Day
A Post-WWII Japan Vignette
My completist quest regarding Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels and short stories (begun long before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature) took me back to one of his earlier works — I only had An Artist of the Floating World and The Unconsoled to finish to have read all of his novels; and with the completion of this book, now only The Unconsoled remains.
Like in his very first published novel, A Pale View of Hills, in An Artist of the Floating World Ishiguro turns to the aftermath of WWII in his parents’ home country, Japan (Ishiguro himself was born there, but grew up in England). The novel(la)’s protagonist and narrator is Masuji Ono, an artist who had risen in the imperialist war years, but now sees society around him changing as a result of the outcome of WWII. “The floating world,” facially, is the pleasure district of Ono’s (unnamed) city, which underwent a first change with the onset of the imperialist regime, and then another one when Japanese society changed yet again after the end of the war: the meeting place of Ono and his artist friends, which before the war had inspired them to paint delicate pictures set in half-shades and pastel tones, but in the war years had changed to a rambunctious locale inspiring bold colors and brush strokes and loud, patriotic messages instead. In a larger sense, of course, “the floating world” is Japanese society itself and its political transformations during and after WWII.
Switching back and forth between — and contrasting — Ono’s memory of the war and pre-war years, and his postwar retirement life, An Artist of the Floating World traces the stories not only of Ono-san himself but also of several of his fellow artists — fellow students at the villa of master teacher Moriyama, and later, students of his own — as well as Ono’s two daughters: one happily and fortuitously married while Ono’s star was still shining high in the artistic and social firmament; the other, having seen one engagement come to naught in the post-war years over her father’s “burdened” past already, now setting her hopes on the scion of a rising family, while her father makes the rounds of his former acquaintances to ensure that the detective sent by the prospective bridegroom’s family to inquire into the bona fides of the bride and her father will hear nothing but good things.
As always in Ishiguro’s novels, though, memory and the tricks it plays on our mind is the true topic here — virtually all of Ishiguro’s narrators are unreliable in the extreme, and Ono-san is certainly no exception. As such, we never get a crystal clear picture of what exactly was his role during the war years, but from the details revealed over the course of the novel it becomes clear, at the very least, that he used to be a man of influence, whose recommendations could help make a person’s career (though not of sufficient influence to spare someone whom he had denounced for an unpatriotic attitude a worse fate than a severe “talking-to” by the authorities), his paintings played a crucial role in the war machine’s propaganda, he suffered a drastic fall from favor at the end of the war, his paintings are now all packed up and stored away — and if he doesn’t actually feel genuine remorse for his role during the war years, he is at the very least aware that he is expected to feel remorse; all of which, after having heard several stories of musicians and corporate executives who have committed suicide by way of a very Japanese “apology” for their real or perceived crimes, causes him to rise to such an apology, apparently entirely unprovoked, at his younger daughter’s miai (the traditional dinner at which she is introduced to her would-be bridegroom).
Ono-san is not necessarily one of Ishiguro’s most endearing protagonists, which, as in the case of Stevens, the butler / narrator in The Remains of the Day, has a lot to do with his reluctance to take off his rose-tinted glasses when looking in the mirror (even though, if the reaction of his bridegroom-to-be’s family to his words of “apology” during the miai, and the young man’s overall response to Ono — as indeed the fact that they are willing to consider his daughter as a bride for their son to begin with, and the fact that there never seems to have been any official punishment or repercussions against Ono other than his art’s fall from favor — is anything to go by, he’s probably more a pompous fool than anything else, supremely amenable to flattery, but ultimately judged as harmless by those that matter).
This is not a story set on a large canvas; rather, it’s a vignette taking a look at post-WWII Japan through the prism of a miniature lens. And while Ishiguro has certainly succeeded marvelously with this sort of setting in The Remains of the Day, by and large I find that I prefer those of his novels which create a somewhat wider landscape, such as Never Let Me Go and When We Were Orphans. A story told by an unreliable narrator needs space for the reader to obtain their own perspective, and being tied too closely to the narrator him- or herself for lack of the inclusion of sufficient events that would allow such a perspective to grow leaves me, at the very least, a bit unsatisfied; more so, in any event, than in Ishiguro’s longer novels, The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans, and Never Let Me Go. While in those books I not only had a clear I idea who the narrators thought they were but also who I thought they were, here I know who Ono-san thinks he is, but not fully who others think he is — nor have I come to a finite conclusion as to who I think he really is.
I read this book for the St. Martin’s Day square of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season, after having had the dreidel pick this as my next book for me for the Hanukkah square.