In An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro gracefully explores the experiences and memories of a disgraced artist living in post-war Japan. The novel is seductive and haunting, but I was also impressed by its substance and depth.
Mansuji Ono, the novel’s protagonist, was once a great artist whose paintings commanded respect throughout Japan. Following the end of World War II, however, Ono experiences a surreal displacement. From Ono’s perspective, the former order he was a part of has not only been abandoned, it has been rejected and renounced as the epitome of disaster. Instead of enjoying the power and prestige that accompanied his former reputation, Ono finds himself adrift, an aging man who wanders through a crumbling house, where all traces of his past life have been “tidied away.”
The cloud of dishonor that haunts Ono does not only affect his life, however. His daughter, Noriko, has repeatedly failed to find a suitor whose family is willing to overlook her father’s scandalous past. In order to strengthen Noriko’s marriage prospects, Ono embarks on a quest to resuscitate his relationships with his former pupils, colleagues, and friends. Hoping that their forgiveness and support will diminish hostilities against him, Ono tracks them down one by one. During these visits, he is forced to confront the effects of the war on their lives. Some have managed to reclaim a sense of stability. Others are as lost as Ono himself. But in each case, the war has wrought profound changes. As Ono internalizes these experiences and memories, he begins to reconsider his own past and involvement with the war.
Although the plot of An Artist of the Floating World is relatively straightforward, Ishiguro’s execution infuses Ono’s quest with rich complexity. Throughout the novel, Ishiguro exhibits a rigorous sense of control over the narrative. As a consequence, the reader is exposed to a very methodical series of revelations about Ono’s former life and his actions during the war. For each detail we discover, however, there are numerous tantalizing bits of information we are denied access to. This intricate negotiation between secrecy and disclosure makes Ono’s journey through the patchwork landscape of memory and regret feel both powerful and real. More than anything else, An Artist of the Floating World is an examination of a man’s search for humanity and redemption in the wake of war and disillusionment.