August 14, 2007

An Artist of the Floating World

Kazuo Ishiguro has earned a just reputation as one of the foremost artists of our world. Particularly adept as in the Remains of the Day at drawing the outline of a character from their own perspective and allowing the reader to understand their limitations in their own words- he both seduces with and simultaneously subverts his main narrative. His early work, an artist of the floating world exhibits many of those characteristics. Ishiguro in this novel tackles the subject of an old man who lives in Nagasaki during the aftermath of the second world war- his wife and son are dead but he is surrounded by the rest of his family, two daughters and a grandson, not to mention a son-in-law with whom his relations are tense.

Books which focus on the end of war- art that focuses on the end of war- are always interesting. Wars produce shattering conclusions- which shatter not merely men and women's lives but their emotions and imaginations as well. The narrator of this novel, Masuji Ono, is no different. Ono was lauded by the dictatorial regime of Imperial Japan for producing patriotic masterpieces- Ishiguro allows us to see how Ono became an imperial propagandist through a desire to do good in the world. It was because he saw the poverty stricken slums of the city he lives in, that he ressolved to support Japanese imperial expansion, knowing little of its consequences and drew patriotic pictures- even at one point joining the imperial government in a minor office. Ono ultimately we know right from the beggining was a man of influence- but that was is key- for the world has floated by him and Ono is left now to contemplate the way that his mistakes have harmed his youngest daughter's prospects of ever getting married.

Ishiguro portrays Ono in a very interesting way- from the beggining we are shown this man as an Epicurean- despite having no money he delights in the sensuous and sensual. He remembers fondly the dens of his youth and middle age where drinking could take him through one night, through to the next and the day after. He remembers fondly the beauty of his wife as a young woman when he first met her. He wants to educate his grandson in the ways of the world- taking him to exciting movies about monsters and telling his elder daughter to give her son a first sip of sake (a fascinating moment by the way where Ishiguro firmly captures the conflict between mother and grandfather, the conflict about by whose values is the grandchild to be reared). But behind this epicureanism, this comfortable happiness lurks an idealism which is provoked now to guilt but was once to passion.

Ono saw the slums of Tokyo as a challenge when young- a challenge that art might meet by waking the conscience of the people. Crucially as he grew older he viewed that challenge as rousing Japan to a new sense of itself as a nation- to rousing Japanese solidarity in the pursuit of economic colonies which would advance the conditions of the working class. Born out of sympathy his nationalism became as nationalism can both jingoistic and totalitarian- eventually he even denounced one of his pupils to the authorities (naively not understanding that once in the hands of the police no eminent artist could hold back the brute hands of the law). Ono though was as he realises late in the book a fool, but he was a passionate fool- a passionate fool with an idea which was at the stem benificent even if the flowers that it grew smelt ugly because of his lack of ability to imagine the consequences of his political activity for those who suffered from it- the pupil there is the symbol in some ways for the peoples of Asia who were bloodied by the imperial designs Ono hoped would rescue the Japanese working class.

Grown old though it isn't so much that Ono has lost his idealism- but from becoming something affirmatory about himself- it has become something accusatory. His master lived he tells Ono in a floating world and proceeded from guilt about painting prostitutes to a joy in the moments of beauty that he could find in the face of a pretty harlot. Ono though has proceeded in the opposite direction- the straightforward harlotry of a fine idea, distilled in a naive mind, has become the motivating cause of much suffering. Losing its moorings his idealism has turned into an accusatory force, condemning the youth and making the aged man suffer for what he would not suffer for when young.

In many ways this movement portrays quite interestingly part of the dilemma of old age- that youth allows one the opportunity to live affloat and born aloft on winds, fancies and ideas- but that in age the mangled ropes of memory tie one's soul to the ground reminding one of follies, faults and falsities. Ono of course is an outlier in this- not many of us have been the instruments of totalitarian visions- but he is an accurate outlier insofar as he reminds us of one particular facet of middle age- that it is not idealism that is lost but that idealism turns inward and almost incapaciates, parallises either in cynicism or in as in Ono's case guilt- a guilt reinforced by the cat calls of the younger generation. For Ono at the end reaches a kind of peace whereby his own decisions are acknowledged to be wrong- but he sees his intentions were good- whether the peace can last is a different matter.

Ishiguro's masterpiece- for that it undoubtedly is- is laden with other themes as well- and much of Ono's problem is particular to his time and place and the reasons why he is hated. But equally for me I found it a very compelling account of some of the way that the experience of growing old may humble and sadden one- and that that sadness can take the form of a retreat into the shell of an epicure. Ultimately Ono retreats to his house and garden, to rebuilding corridors and repotting trees- from the drama of imperial war he turns in regret knowing that he has fought and through his stupidity failed- he turns now back to the floating world of epicureanism and there is a sense that the knowledge of his imperfection comes at a terrible price in terms of the supression of his idealistic impulses- and in terms of the direction of those impulses against the fragile fortress of his soul.