Generally novels dealing with abstract themes without any tangible storyline don’t make very arresting reads. The Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro is an exception to the rule. Set in a post World War 2 Japan, the novel deals with multiplicity of themes.
How accepted values of the past come to be frowned upon by subsequent generations; how a war can change a country not only in terms of its physical landscape but also values; how a current generation can blame a former generation for something without fully appreciating a situation; Japanese art and culture. It almost has everything under the sun. Yet nothing seems forced. Every theme seems to fit into the larger architecture of the novel.
Ono worked as a propaganda artist during World War 2. Now retired, he ruminates on his past – about the friends he once had, the slow decline and disappearance of the pleasure districts he once visited regularly – his ruminations work as a window to the reader into different aspects of not only his own past but also that of the country.
Told in the first person, the recollections don’t flow in a chronological order but appear in a haphazard way triggered sometimes by a stray thought or by an unlikely object – progressing for some time to form a full-bodied theme and then when seen by the reader after it has run its course the sub theme appearing to be in sync with the larger theme. In the foreword Kazuo Ishiguro says he wanted to deal with memory like Marcel Proust.
As an Asian I sometimes find Western novels culturally alien – oh, that sort of thing would never happen here. We treat our parents more respectfully than that etc. – but Japan seems too familiar. Arrange marriages, stiff respect for elders, conformity, everything is so similar to how India is. I had the same feeling when I had read Memoirs of Geisha by Arthur Golden, although it was on a different subject.
If there is any constant theme running through the book it is Ono’s concern about how others see his role during the war. His younger daughter’s marriage negotiations suddenly broke under rather mysterious circumstances.
One day while the marriage negotiations were still on he had a chance meeting with his would-be son in law who told him that the president of his company had committed suicide as an apology to the current generation on behalf of those who were responsible for the war. Ono had a long conversation with his future son in law about why should anyone be apologetic for the war trying to steer him away from his beliefs. Soon after this incident, the son in law’s family withdrew from the negotiations.
Ono suspects the husband of his elder daughter blames the previous generation for the war and believes his daughter shares her husband’s views. He goes through a moment of bitter introspection where he feels frustrated and angry about the accusatory attitude of the current generation towards his and decides to write an angry mail to his daughter and her husband.
Had it not been for Kazuo Ishiguro’s light and easy style of writing the book would not be an easy read. The Artist of the Floating World is the first novel I read as an ebook.