Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Book 45: An Artist of the Floating World

While I have enjoyed all of Ishiguro's novels that I've read thus far, none have come close recreating the same magic for me as Never Let Me Go.  Of course, I haven't read some of his more acclaimed works, such as The Remains of the Day, and have only read a few of his earlier novels since first reading Never Let Me Go
Set three years after the end of World War II, the novel is narrated by the retired artist Masuji Ono and broken down into four parts covering different periods of time, beginning with October 1948, April and November 1949, and June 1950.  The novel is not very linear at all, and the narrator goes on many tangents.  He will at one point be discussing a conversation he had during a visit with his daughter which will then remind him of his times as an art student for his master.  In this way, the novel slowly reveals Ono's life story, though there are no real surprises: the reader already knows the outcomes of his actions at the beginning of the novel.
As the novel begins, Ono's youngest daughter is in the middle of marriage negotiations, and things are tense since she is fast approaching old maid status and negotiations the previous year had turned unexpectedly bad.  His other dauther is already married (she married before the war), and has a young son, Ichiro, who doesn't see much of his grandfather.  Ono is not a very likable narrator, especially in the beginning: the way he portrays things, it seems like he is being stubbornly obtuse about things.  He and his daughters don't appear to truly talk about what concerns them, and talk around things instead (his wife and son died in the war).  He also keeps trying to bond with his grandson but obviously has no clue how to interact with children.  They only time they seem to have anything to say to each other is when Ono makes promises that aren't in his power to make, or when they are making fun of the women of the family.  He doesn't understand or approve of the changes in Japanese culture or the new American influence.
As Ono portrays it, it seems obvious that his daughters believe that his past with the Japanese empire are one of the reasons that the marriage negotiations went wrong, though Ono says that it was because his family had a higher status than the suitor's and appears to be in denial.  He throws in many anecdotes of Japanese men committing suicide as an apology for what the older generation led the country into, as well as memories of conversations about the war with his son-in-law who has become very bitter and critical.  Most of the novel, it appears as if Ono doesn't quite agree that it is fair to blame the war and its repercussions on his generation.  He often justifies himself and his peers by talking about how they wanted what was best for the country and their intentions were pure.  However, eventually he attempts to visit old colleagues to ask them to speak in his favor in case the family whose son may marry his daughter hire a detective or make inquiries.
Ono chose to become an artist despite his father's wishes that he be a businessman.  He reminisces back to his times as an apprentice in a firm and then with a master who focuses on the fleeting beauty of the floating world, the world of geishas and pleasure.  He also talks about his own students and how admired he was, coming across as pompous.  He had decided to leave behind the art of beauty to focus on political art and propaganda in support of the empire.  At first it seems like he is shirking any responsibility or blame, especially based on his portrayal of his daughters but later in the novel, I wondered.  When his daughters contradict him later, is it because he misremembers, or do they not want to remember bad things because things are going well at the time?  How important was Ono really?  How culpable was he?  The way he writes I'm not sure if he was making himself seem more or less responsible for whatever happened during the war.  At first I definitely would have said he was trying to avoid blame, but at the end I wasn't sure anymore, and thought maybe he felt more guilt than he wanted to admit, or wanted to feel more important than he was.
While I really didn't like Ono in the beginning, I felt bad for him by the end despite some of the bad things he did.  He has outlived his world, he can't relate to his family, and he doesn't even seem quite sure of his importance in his former world anymore.  While the war only intensifies these issues, I'm sure many old people can relate to this.  Ishiguro is very good at creating characters with regrets, lonely souls who spend their time living in the past.  At the end, Ono says he has been painting again, so maybe he has finally taken his old master's words about fleeting beauty to heart.  Still, I don't see much hope for Ono's happy ending: his time has passed and I don't think he will ever quite find his place in this new world.

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