The first time I read Ishiguro Kazuo's novel 'An Artist of the Floating World', I was still in High School. The second time I read it was mere days after finishing reading it that first time. Something about its story drew me back to it, which is something which has never happened to me before with any other work of fiction. After that second read-through I did however not read it again until a couple of weeks ago. Although I have purchased this book twice over the past years, I never felt the need to read it again. That, or maybe I wasn't sure whether the interpretation which had been burned into my soul would live up to a new read-through.
The current dead-tree version I possess of this book is the hard-cover 1986 release by Putnam. Sadly it appears that this book is relatively hard to obtain new via Amazon at this point, ergo I had to go for one of the many used copies available. Possessing the bound version with acid-free paper in itself is a great thing, as despite being almost thirty years old, this book looks practically brand-new, aside from the thin cover such bound books tend to have around the much more durable hard cover. Anyway, the reason I decided to read this book was because I thought that my e-reader device had died, and I needed a dead-tree book to help me get through this difficult period. As my gaze fell upon this particular book I figured I might as well read it again.
'An Artist of the Floating World' is a book whose summary is rather brief and succinct, yet without revealing much of what makes it into such a great story. It is written as the fictional thoughts and recollections of a Japanese artist during the late 1940s, early 50s, who became a painter during the early 20th century in Japan, then rose to prominence during the 1930s and 40s. After the war, not only him, but everyone of his generation tries to come to terms with the new Japan, especially in light of their own actions during the war.
Note that spoilers will follow judiciously in the rest of this text, so be forewarned if you haven't read the book yet.
If it wasn't clear already, this is my number one favourite book, together with Ishiguro's first book: 'A Pale View of Hills'. What exactly is it that appeals to me so much in the story? I'm not entirely sure. The perspective of the story is that of a person who has lived most of his life and seen the country he was born and raised in undergo major transitions. From the rise of the military rule, to the role of the Emperor, to war and consecutive American occupation, each of it all are almost distinct countries, with each transition leaving behind entire generations as they are forced to adapt.
The main character - and fictional author - is Mr. Ono, a renowned painter. His rise to prominence took place during the time of the Japanese occupation of Chinese territory in the 1920s, followed by Japan's involvement in the second world war. This all against the background of Japan trying to assert itself as a major power in Asia. No longer a 'country of farmers', the new Japan would be both respected and feared. Artists became involved in this as well, creating the many paintings, songs and posters which visualized and otherwise gave shape and expression to this movement. Mr. Ono, along with his many colleagues, were also part of this.
In the title, the term 'floating world' refers primarily to the pleasure districts, where a man could lose himself for a night in a world which the next morning would turn out to be insubstantial and fleeting, a feeling which artists like Mr. Ono tried to capture in their paintings. Yet it also refers to the world of nationalism and patriotism which so pervaded Japan during those decades. With the rude wake-up call of the surrender and occupation by the Americans, this world - too - turned out to be insubstantial and fleeting. No longer seen as patriots and 'true' Japanese, but as traitors and people with a questionable past, their reintegration into the rapidly developing modern Japan is tedious and wrought with obstacles.
To Mr. Ono his family is the most important thing, as he watches over his two daughters until they're old enough to have a suitable husband found for them. His son unfortunately died during the war, and is not talked about much. His wife died during the bombardments, which still haunts him, even as he has accepted her death. The scenes he describes of the current day events are intermixed with many recollections and fond memories, as the events leading up to his status as a retired artist are puzzled together. The image which forms is that a man who has seen much, experienced more, and still tries to find peace with the new Japan.
Pervasive throughout the entire story is the searching for answers, mostly to questions about in how far his own involvement as an artist in the war efforts really mattered or contributed. Meeting with an old friend, this friend remarks to him that in the end their efforts probably didn't matter much, if at all. He also adds that they shouldn't blame themselves for what happened, for it was just the world they found themselves in. All of their ambitions and energy went towards that which they believed to be rightful and just, even if afterwards it turned out to be misguided. If the world had been different, the world today would look differently upon their actions.
That in itself is the whole crux of the issue in my view as well. What has happened, has happened. The only thing which matters is the feeling which you carried in your heart when you did those things. Were they acts of malice, or of ignorance? If you truly believed that the things you did were because it would make life better, or at least would contribute to a positive cause, then nobody should be able to question your moral integrity based upon it.
This is also reflected in the story's final act, wherein Mr. Ono observes a group of young office workers at one of the many new office buildings chat and laugh. In that moment of redemption he realizes that while the old Japan he knew and grew up in may be gone, but that the core, the essence which used to invigorate and inspire him is still there. It is the letting go of the last memories of that floating world, of that tantalizing but ever-fleeting recollection, which allows one to grasp hold of the hope that the present and future hold more than enough promise to fill the gap in one's soul that those fleeting recollections have left behind.
To me it's truly the subtlety of this story and the strong message which it carries which draws me so strongly to it. It's heavily nostalgic and melancholic, yet interspersed with the small joys and hopes brought by the present and future. That to me makes it into one of those rare stories which is capable of fully grasping my attention in such an impressive fashion. Not just the me of fifteen years ago, but also the much more experienced and (possibly) wiser me today. To be frank, I find it astounding that the in my view lesser work by Ishiguro 'The Remains of the Day' is far more popular and was even turned into a film.
Possibly this also underlines that which this story tries to make clear: that the people of today will go along with that which is the current cultural group-think, whether it is some kind of revolution, or the desire to transform one's country to fit some kind of ideal. Nobody really wants to step back and look at the whole picture with a scrutinizing eye the way a painter would scrutinize his latest work in progress. It's simply far easier to just stay inside one's own little world and allow it to float along with the flow alongside all of those other floating worlds.
Reality, after all, is just what you accept it to be.