Masuji Ono is a painter. Once, he was devoted to depicting the "floating world"--life in the pleasure districts of drinking establishments and prostitutes, which have a kind of transitory beauty. He worked in the tradition of ukiyo-e, the 19th-century woodblock prints, whose name translates literally to "floating world." But such an artistic tradition began to lose its relevance for Ono in the reality of pre-war Japan, and he committed himself to producing propaganda art for the Imperial cause. Now, after the surrender, the older Ono looks back with nostalgia on the floating world that he's lost and reconciling himself to the new Japan.
Post-war Japan is not a friendly place for those who were high in the Imperial cause. Many commit suicide as a public show of expiation for leading the country into such a costly war. Ono's daughter Noriko seems to worry that his reputation will ultimately sink the marriage that is being arranged for her, and encourages him to seek out his old associates before her fiance's detective does. (This seems like a common arrangement; Ono has a detective of his own.) But there are those, like Ono's old student, Kuroda, who don't wish to see him, for deeds that Ono--and Ishiguro--keep at arm's length.
This weekend was the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (It made me think about the horrific scene describing the blast in Joy Kogawa's Obasan.) Reading about the bombings again provided an interesting context to An Artist of the Floating World, which seeks to capture something about the state of mind of the Japanese at World War II. The atomic bombs are not mentioned, but traditional bombing has taken a heavy, heavy toll on the country. Ono's own wife, we learn, was killed in their home by a bomb, and many of the establishments of the old "floating world" are now rubble. But buildings are also rising, many in a new Western style. Ono himself finds some of these places bewildering, and his inability to adapt to the new way is underscored humorously by his conversations with his grandson, Ichiro, who would rather pretend to be the Lone Ranger than a samurai. The turn away from militarism and imperialism requires a purge of the old guard, it needs it suicides, and though Ono finds such actions foolish, he recognizes in their actions a reflection of himself.
What Ono recognizes and understands, and what he doesn't, are the heart of An Artist of the Floating World. Ishiguro really is the maestro of the unreliable narrator, and in a lot of ways Ono seems like a practice run at the character of the butler in The Remains of the Day, who refuses to recognize that his employer was a Nazi collaborator. A Briton of Japanese background, Ishiguro seems to offer a kind of parallel between Japanese and British styles of repression. Stevens the butler hides behind a kind of mannered, class-oriented sense of "dignity" that isn't so different from the Japanese style of polite avoidance practiced by Ono's daughters. Confrontations, such as they are, are made only obliquely, and couched in equivocating language--forgive me, perhaps, etc.--that makes an honest assessment of reality difficult for the reader.
Ono himself is comparatively forthright, and considers himself to be making an honest assessment of his own position. But a performative forthrightness can itself be a kind of denial. Yes, Ono admits that the imperialist fervor was a mistake, but what are his mistakes? He professes ignorance as to why his old student Kuroda might not wish to see him and only late in the novel, as if pushed back into a mental closet, that Ono reported Kuroda for "unpatriotic" sympathies. Ono's admission that he has slightly less influence than he did before the war, but how much burden is put on the word "slightly?" When describing his paintings, why does he focus on their aesthetic qualities, rather than their propagandistic content? Ishiguro, as always, does a terrific job preventing the reader from getting to an objective truth, leaving us only with a sense that Ono's version is not quite right.
There's a final reveal that I admit I didn't see coming. I'll say "spoiler alert," even though that seems a weird term for a revelation that is entirely psychological, rather than plot-driven. Ono's ultimate denial, it turns out, is that he never really mattered much in the first place. As his daughter says:
Forgive me, but it is perhaps important to see things in a proper perspective. Father painted some splendid pictures, and was no doubt most influential among other painters. But Father's work had hardly to do with these larger matters of which we are speaking. He must stop believing he has done some great wrong.
It's so subtle, but it really turns everything on its head. Ono isn't a powerful man whose equivocations prevent him from dealing with his misdeeds, he's an ordinary man whose equivocations actually serve to make him feel more important than he really was. He thinks of himself as being the same kind of person as those who have committed suicides of honor, but these thoughts inflate his importance. His misdeeds--like his reporting of Kuroda--are small and petty acts, personal betrayals, not national ones. As his friend, the fellow traveler Matsuda tells him, "It was simply our misfortune to have been ordinary men during such times." Ono believes there is a satisfaction in having done something great and failed, but most failures are only the ordinary kind, and that makes them somehow even more tragic.