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Set in Japan three years after the end of the Second World War, the novel is narrated by Masuji Ono, a respected artist before and during the war.
Now retired, Ono spends his days gardening and making half-hearted repairs to his large, crumbling house. The novel opens with a subdued and evocative sentence: "If on a sunny day you climb the steep path leading up from the little wooden bridge still referred to around here as 'the Bridge of Hesitation', you will not have to walk far before the roof of my house becomes visible between the tops of two gingko trees.
This hesitancy breathes through the book. With his wife and son killed in the war, Ono struggles to cope with the changes wrought on his life, his two daughters and his society. As daughter Noriko enters another set of marriage negotiations, Ono reflects on his role as a painter supporting Japan's war through ultra-nationalistic artworks, and how he betrayed a student to the government, resulting in the student's imprisonment and torture.
As he wanders through the dusty corridors and unused rooms of the house, Ono's narrative drifts and eddies into extended digressions into the past before looping back to the present. We see him as a young man, defying his father's wish to take over the family business; we follow his artistic development, from painting Japanese-themed kitsch to breaking free from the confines of traditional Japanese art, to producing propaganda works for his country.
Like most of Ishiguro's narrators, the reliability of Ono's recollection is suspect. His reminiscences are usually qualified: "Of course, that is all a matter of many years ago now and I cannot vouch that those were my exact words that morning. The themes that fascinate me as a writer are present in this novel: regret, guilt, the malleability of memory, the pains of ageing, solitude, loneliness.
Ishiguro's writing is spare, and really nothing much happens in the book at all. And yet every time after I finish reading it, I view Ono — and the world — in a slightly altered light. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Start your Independent Premium subscription today.
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An Artist of the Floating World
This, as its title suggests, is a tour de force of unreliable narration, set in post-second world war Japan, during the American occupation. This kind of hesitation and uncertainty runs through everything that follows. Everything, for Ono, is provisional and troubling: art, family, life and posterity. An Artist of the Floating World presents, with the menace of an almost dream-like calm, the reminiscences of a retired painter in the aftermath of a national disaster.
An Artist of the Floating World Summary
Released in , this relatively short novel is dense with ideas and possibilities. Set in Japan in the late s, the story is narrated by Masuji Ono, a celebrated painter who once created propaganda for the Imperial Army. With Ishiguro, however, nothing is straightforward. Ono is an unreliable narrator, disguising his motives and spinning recollections to portray himself more favorably. Although he denies making mistakes, his true feelings slowly seep through and the evolution of his character is expertly revealed by the reactions of his worried daughters. Ono does feel real guilt over his past, but he struggles to admit this — even to himself. His guilt tarnishes everything, turning the most innocent of comments into accusations.