Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World reminded me just how much I love unreliable narrators who are unreliable because they have deliberately disconnected themselves from the world around them. Others can see the disconnection, but they can’t. These kinds of characters allow me to do two of my favorite things. First, I get two stories the for the price of one between what the narrator is telling me and what’s actually happening. Second, I get to psychoanalyze the narrator. They’re not lying to the reader because they’re a criminal. They’re lying to themselves for a reason I get to discover for myself. It’s an English major’s delight.
By 1948, Masuji Ono has retired from his work as a successful painter. He lives in a wonderful house. His oldest daughter is married with a child and his younger daughter is in the middle of marriage negotiations. He lost his son in the war but, on the whole, Ono is satisfied with his life. It’s only over the course of the book that we learn just how much Ono is ignoring and distorting about his own history—especially his role in creating propaganda for the Imperial Japanese government before and during World War II.
An Artist of the Floating World unspools over the course of about eighteen months. We join Ono as he and his younger daughter, Noriko, are in the early stages of marriage negotiations with the Saito family. As part of these negotiations, the Onos are investigated to learn more about the finances, background, and so on. Ono is not worried. His older daughter, Setsuko, however, has some worries about what the investigation might turn up. Her comments about what the Saitos might find out about him bother Ono enough that he starts to look up people he knew before the war. He meets with the man who helped him sell propagandistic paintings. He tries but fails to meet with the student he wronged, the one who ended up imprisoned for years for anti-Imperial activities.
Ono strongly reminds me of Stevens, the protagonist of The Remains of the Day. Both characters have a firm vision of who they are and what they want to be. Stevens wanted to be the epitome of a butler and that’s what he turned himself into, at the cost of living an ordinary life. Ono wants to be a respected artist, looked up to by younger generations of artists. He is also deeply nostalgic for the way life and society used to be before the war. Several times during An Artist of the Floating World, Ono remarks on how a couple of the younger characters have condemned the actions of some Japanese leaders and business men during the war. Even though some of these men were convicted of war crimes, Ono always says that things were complicated “back then” or that what happened wasn’t all that bad. Ono has either turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Imperial soldiers or has kept himself deliberately ignorant. When he does come close to thinking that maybe his own propaganda work was wrong, Ono rationalizes away any culpability. He’s so smooth about it it’s breathtaking.
An Artist of the Floating World itself also reminds me of The Remains of the Day. Even though they are both set on opposite sides of the world, they are set in very hierarchical and reserved societies. The characters in An Artist of the Floating World are highly deferential and oblique in their criticisms. It took me a few dozen pages to learn how to read this book. Once I got a handle on the dialogue, I realized that this book seems to have more subtext than actual text. It is very much a joy to read for those of us who like to take books apart to see how they work, like me. I strongly recommend this book for English majors and anyone who loved The Remains of the Day and are looking for something similar.