An Artist of the Floating World

Early on in An Artist of the Floating World comes a rather English scene where the main character, an ageing, widowed artist, takes tea in his garden with his children, and they talk about family affairs and society gossip, whilst beyond the garden walls their city lies in bombed-out ruin. Postwar Japan is a nation in flux, unsure of what to become in the future or trapped by its past, depending on perspective.
The artist Masuji Ono is very much in the latter school, rarely leaving the confines of his house and garden – except in memory – because there’s not much of a world left for him out there. It’s a house he never would have been able to afford, except through the auction of prestige that its previous owner’s heirs used to decide who to pass it on to. Ono was a highly respected artist back then, and he was judged most worthy to buy the house.
But as his younger daughter seeks a husband, and her prospective husband’s parents investigate her family background, Ono fears his own part in Japan’s recent history will make them both appear unworthy. Desperate that his personal shame not impact his daughter’s chances in life, Ono is forced to go beyond his garden walls and confront faces from his past he hasn’t seen since before the war.
By his own (frequent) admission, Ono is an unreliable narrator, so we’re left wondering whether his sense of guilt for his complicity in the machine of empire is self-inflicted or whether, in fact, he simply wants us to believe it is only self-inflicted. This isn’t a melodrama or The Reader and Ono is not a war criminal, and if he is guilty then he is far from alone.
Initially I would have said that An Artist of the Floating World is too short, and would have benefitted from being as long as the only other Kazuo Ishiguro novel I have read, When We Were Orphans. I would have argued that on a larger canvas all of the minor characters wouldn’t simply have been ciphers for postwar Japan: Ono’s young grandson, the only true innocent; Ono’s former protégé, seemingly oblivious to his country’s wartime actions; the ‘village idiot’ who continues to sing nationalistic songs, to the disdain of the very people who taught him the songs but who now wish to be seen as part of the new, young Japan. But perhaps that’s how Ono sees it, or at least how Ono wants us to believe he sees it, accepting the mantle of responsibility whilst others blame people around them.
The novel has made me want to read more of Ishiguro’s work, but the book that jumped off the shelf this week was Canvey Island by James Runcie. It has been waiting patiently to be read for about four years, but obviously decided now was the ideal time (or rather weather) for me to read a novel that starts with the 1953 floods.

A bottle of port versus a vodka shot

Halfway through the year and Powder Monkey by Paul Dowswell is only the thirteenth book I have read since January, which means that New Year resolution to read more than thirty books this year is looking just as unlikely to be successful as it was the previous three years. So I can’t really blame the shorter commute I have now. I long gave up on attempting to read fifty books a year, having accepted that I am just a slow reader – slower than my dyslexic mother was, in fact. Still, a book savoured over a week or two leaves a greater impression than one blitzed in a couple of days, right? A bottle of port versus a vodka shot.

Anyway, nineteenth century teenager Sam Witchall always dreamt of going to sea, but he only gets to spend a couple of chapters as cabin boy aboard a merchant ship before being impressed into the Royal Navy as a powder monkey – the nimble-footed child whose job it is to run back and forth between gun and magazine to replenish the gunpowder for the former. He quickly discovers how his predecessor met a sticky end, and it was just as sticky for his salty new crewmates who had to scrape the kid off the deck.

After that the book loses the plot, quite literally. Despite being largely plotless, its lack of direction (or characters driven by any greater motivation than simply surviving) is disguised by its swift pace. Sam is the initially wide-eyed naïf typical of these kinds of young adult novels, his introduction into navy life shaping the book into an episodic guided tour of life aboard a frigate just before the Napoleonic Wars. Storms, shipwrecks, sea battles, floggings, maggoty biscuits and horrific surgery at sea all feature, though not necessarily in that order, along with the apparently obligatory pissing scene (third Dowswell book, third scene featuring wee).

The ending sets up for another two books in the series, which presumably will have plots, but next up for me is An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is proving to be a cup of warmed sake next to Dowswell’s beaker of Diet Coke.