I've read all of Kazuo Ishiguro's books, and, while "The Remains of the Day" is my very favorite, this small book comes in a close second. It is delicate in its theme and narrative, yet its effects are quite lasting.
"An Artist of the Floating World" takes place in 1948 in a quiet town in Japan. The protagonist, Masuji Ono, once a moderately famous artist, enjoys spending his days mopping his tatami and working in his garden, although the highlight of his life are the visits from his grandson, Ichiro. As Ono enjoys his retirement from painting, he also takes the opportunity to look back on his life and reflect upon its meaning.
Ono's memories of the past are many; he has had a long journey from young, bohemian art student to retired, successful artist. In the 1930s, Ono took great pleasure in visiting the "red light" districts of Japan, but after his marriage, he settled down and devoted himself to his family and his painting.
Ono and his late wife had three children. Sadly, his only son died during the war. His loss still affects Ono greatly, as it always will. His elder daughter, Setsuko, the mother of Ichiro, is, from all appearances, happily married. His younger daughter, Neriko, has not been quite as successful where marriage is concerned. Her first marriage negotiations were broken off and she is now involved in a second attempt.
In one of the most intriguing sections of this book, Ishiguro describes the marriage negotiations that used to be routine in Japan. These negotiations are called a "miai" and involve what resembles a British high tea. First, the parents must be matched, as the two families involved must be within the same social and economic class. Once it has been decided that the parents of both the prospective bride and the prospective groom are a "fit," the couple is allowed to meet for the very first time. Only after everyone has given their stamp of approval can the actual wedding finally take place. Unfortunately, Neriko's first marriage negotiation failed when she was considered to be of a lower social class than her prospective bridegroom. Ono, who has a darker past than one might initially assume, is worried that it may possibly come to light and harm Neriko's marriage negotiations, causing them to fail for a second time.
Ono's musings take us back to World War II Japan, a time when all Japanese felt extremely patriotic and a time when any "wrong" action could cause one to be labelled a traitor. Ono, through his art, endeavored to help the cause of Japan in the war. Now, Ono, who lost his both his son and his wife in the war, feels he must reflect on his actions and decide what the consequences of them really were. Does he require forgiveness? If so, from whom? Is he being silly and pompous in believing that his art actually made a difference? Or is he thoughtful and reflective; a man who wants and needs to take responsibility for his actions? I really don't know and Ishiguro doesn't tell us, much to this book's credit. Sometimes, the things that aren't written are more important that the things that are written. As we get to know Ono, we come to experience imperial Japan. It is a heady and exotic experience and one I certainly wouldn't have wanted to miss.
Ishiguro, in my opinion, is one of the top five greatest living authors and a master of understatement and subtlety. Nowhere is this more evident that in his glorious book, "The Remains of the Day." "An Artist of the Floating World," however, has charms of its own. Ishiguro's prose is precise, with every word carefully chosen. In his writing, Ishiguro seems to resemble the miai, the very epitome of politeness and respect.
"An Artist of the Floating World" is a beautiful book and one that leaves a deep impression without seeming to do much at all.