THE ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD by Kazuo Ishiguro

Because they fall

we love them –

the cherry blossoms.

In this floating world

does anything endure?

—   Ariwara no Narihira (823-880)

Yes, THAT Kazuo Ishiguro of Remains of the Day fame.   I really like his work.  It all has this somewhat prickly undercurrent of negativity, of pointing out the absurd attitudes we carry around with us.

Set in 1947 Tokyo, it is narrated in first person by an aging artist, now retired, who is faced with the problem of getting his youngest daughter married.  He lost his wife in the war to a stray bomb, and his son was killed in the war, but he was left with two daughters, one now married with a young son.

Not a lot actually happens in this book.  It follows the musings of the old man, now thinking about the current life of his neighborhood, now going back into the past.  He was an acclaimed artist, but before the war, he turned from art to nationalist propaganda, and became a prominent leader of the artists calling for Japanese nationalism and imperial expansion.  Now that the war is over, he is retired, and his reputation is tainted, and there are those who are disgusted with him for his political views. It was felt that the turn toward the politicization of art leads toward fascism.

In Japan at this time, marriage negotiations included hiring a detective to investigate all the family members, and the negotiations of the previous year fell through for an unknown reason.  But of course, everyone is quite sure it is because those investigations revealed his distasteful past, and the groom’s family pulled out of the negotiations.    Now there is another interested young man, and the daughters of the artist are very much afraid that this too will end in a failed negotiation, and so ask their father to please go around to his old acquaintances and ensure that these people will say good things about him.

And what is that floating world thing all about?  “Floating World” describes the urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects, of the Edo-period Japan (1600–1867).    About 1750, a courtesan named Kiku renounced the sex trade and became the first geisha or arts person, thereby initiating a new cultural tradition. The poetry of the Floating World, like its art, was gritty and realistic and dealt with life as it is rather than as we would wish it. The poets of the Floating World did not feel the need to explain things, and so we find that our artist in this book does not feel the need to explain things, but only to present them as he remembers them.   Is he an unreliable narrator?  Perhaps, but only in the sense that we each of us write our own narratives,  putting ourselves in the light in which we can tolerate being seen.

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