The last time I read an Ishiguro was in April of last year - his Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, which I thoroughly enjoyed. After that, I had been meaning to read this book as a follow-up, but despite having it included in several months' worth of reading lists (carried over from one on to the next), I finally gave up attempting to pick it up and focused on other authors and/or books in the meantime. The inspiration to read Ishiguro again will come sooner or later, and I didn't want to force it lest I fail to imbibe the beauty and significance that will definitely manifest in any of his works.
When inspiration struck, I was ready. Satisfaction.
Set in post-World War II Japan, An Artist of the Floating World is the story of Masuji Ono, a Japanese painter who, as he enters the twilight of his years, reflects on his life. He ruminates on his relationships with his two daughters, Noriko and Setsuko, his art pupils, his former masters, and his colleagues – pre- and post-war. He contemplates on his active involvement in pre-war Japanese politics and how his reputation got tarnished because of this, taking down with it important relationships and threatening to ruin some more.
I was in the middle of reading this when I realized how much the themes explored in this novel – change, reputation, relationships, war – would make for a healthy book discussion. Because Ono’s story is narrated via first person point of view, his reflections offered a plethora of topics for further exploration. But since I read this by my lonesome, I was left alone to my thoughts.
Ono’s recollections are replete with life lessons, especially on the question of self-worth and “mistakes made in the best of faith.” One passage states:
“...it may not always be an easy thing, but there is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one's life. In any case, there is surely no great shame in mistakes made in the best of faith. It is surely a thing far more shameful to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge them.”
It broke my heart when Ono realized how much his previous actions – deeds which, at the time they were made, he believed were proper and correct – would have serious repercussions. The first marriage negotiations for his daughter, Noriko, who at the age of 26 was (purportedly) more than prepared for marital life, fell through. Colleagues and art pupils who formerly held Ono in high esteem were suddenly seeking disassociation. Had Ono known about the consequences of his previous conduct, would he have insisted on it? Since things past can no longer be undone, what should Ono do and sacrifice in order to rectify “mistakes made in the best of faith”?
It is all about beliefs and principles, and how they can be modified together with the changing of the times. It is about compromise and sacrifice. It is about admitting and embracing errors committed in honest, albeit mistaken, belief that they were right. It is about what matters in the here and the now, because anything past is indelible and permanent. It is about making amends, rectifying mistakes, resolving to do better.
The sensitivity and pensiveness of the themes in the novel are highlighted by the quiet narrative and fluid style that Ishiguro always employs in his writings. The fact that it is in the first-person point of view, ergo unreliable, lends credence to the fallibility of Ono’s reminiscences – which, ironically, I find more appealing to this reader.
The reference to the “artist” in the title obviously points to Ono, and I eagerly anticipated the allusion to the “floating world” – perhaps it was a name coined for Japan during the war years? It would turn out that the “floating world” is the pleasure district near the villa, beyond the Bridge of Hesitation – I love that name and how it came about – where Ono’s former master held his art school. Nonetheless, I maintain that “floating world” still refers to the country itself, as it endures transformations and improvements together with the changing of the times.
I leave you with this favorite passage of mine. It speaks of ambition, of striving to succeed, despite the odds:
“For indeed, a man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if in the end he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions.”
Book Details: My own, trade paperback, bought from The Book Depository