An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

April 28, 2009

floating-world Kazuo Ishiguro is perhaps best known for his 1989 Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day, it is his earlier work, An Artist of the Floating World, that made it onto the Observer’s list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. Since I’m trying to work my way through those hundred books, I recently had a chance to take in Artist… and was instantly mesmerized by the world and characters Ishiguro created.

Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The story is told from the first-person point of view of Masuji Ono, a retired artist who once held some prominence in Japan for works he created prior to and during World War II. Set in the reconstruction era, Ono reflects on his past as he runs into different people he used to hobnob with quite frequently, slowly revealing details of his earlier life in the process.

It turns out that Ono had produced some prints that he considered art, but that were essentially propaganda for the Japanese emperor and military troops. After Japan lost the war, many Japanese were ready to move on from the past and start building a better future, and as a result, felt that Ono’s works were misguided at best and scandalous at worst. The artist himself fails to recognize the discomfort people feel in his presence, as he just goes about his quiet life. Finally, he begins to ask himself if he perhaps made a mistake after all, and what kind of reparations would be suitable to atone for his past actions.

The ending of the novel is rather vague, but the reader gets the sense that Ono ends up not doing anything at all about his past. Rather, he seems content to mull over the possibilities, put a different spin on past conversations (“maybe he was really saying…”), and continue on in the same vein for the rest of his life. In other words, Ono is essentially in the very same place at the end of the novel as he was in the beginning (outwardly), and none of his musings seem to manifest in any clear, positive action.

My Reaction: Though there’s no external action to speak of in An Artist of the Floating World, I found myself instantly drawn into the novel and the plight of the main character. Ishiguro masterfully revealed just enough details along the way to keep me interested in finding out what grave sins Ono had committed during the war, and though the final unveiling of the propaganda pieces was a bit anticlimactic to me (they didn’t seem to be that big a deal in the grand scheme of things), I was nevertheless fully invested in the characters and plot by that time.

This is the kind of novel that’s meant to be read and savored at a leisurely pace. If you fly through it, which is possible considering the length and the relatively easy subjects of Ono’s ruminations, then you’re liable to miss a lot of the subtleties and nuances supplied by Ishiguro, not to mention the delightful descriptions of Japan scattered throughout the narrative.

Overall, An Artist of the Floating World is a surprisingly engrossing read despite the lack of “action”. If you’re interested in a good character piece, I recommend giving this book a try! I give it 4 stars out of 5.

One Response to “An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro”

  1. I dig you page! It introduced me to books I have never heard of! I shall be reading on. 🙂

    Rock on!

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