Book of a lifetime: An Artist of the Floating World, By Kazuo Ishiguro

 

The Booker Prize-winner The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro's most famous novel, but An Artist of the Floating World is his one book that I re-read at least once a year.

Set in Japan three years after the end of the Second World War, the novel is narrated by Masuji Ono, a respected artist before and during the war. Now retired, Ono spends his days gardening and making half-hearted repairs to his large, crumbling house. The novel opens with a subdued and evocative sentence: "If on a sunny day you climb the steep path leading up from the little wooden bridge still referred to around here as 'the Bridge of Hesitation', you will not have to walk far before the roof of my house becomes visible between the tops of two gingko trees."

This hesitancy breathes through the book. With his wife and son killed in the war, Ono struggles to cope with the changes wrought on his life, his two daughters and his society. As daughter Noriko enters another set of marriage negotiations, Ono reflects on his role as a painter supporting Japan's war through ultra-nationalistic artworks, and how he betrayed a student to the government, resulting in the student's imprisonment and torture.

As he wanders through the dusty corridors and unused rooms of the house, Ono's narrative drifts and eddies into extended digressions into the past before looping back to the present. We see him as a young man, defying his father's wish to take over the family business; we follow his artistic development, from painting Japanese-themed kitsch to breaking free from the confines of traditional Japanese art, to producing propaganda works for his country.

Like most of Ishiguro's narrators, the reliability of Ono's recollection is suspect. His reminiscences are usually qualified: "Of course, that is all a matter of many years ago now and I cannot vouch that those were my exact words that morning." In many instances he is forced to revise what he remembers, often grudgingly. "I am not one of those who are afraid to admit to the shortcomings of past achievements," Ono says near the end.

The themes that fascinate me as a writer are present in this novel: regret, guilt, the malleability of memory, the pains of ageing, solitude, loneliness. Ishiguro's writing is spare, and really nothing much happens in the book at all. And yet every time after I finish reading it, I view Ono – and the world – in a slightly altered light.

Tan Twan Eng appears on Wednesday 22 May at the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature (asiahouse.org); his novel 'The Garden of Evening Mists' is published by Canongate

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