The 100 best novels: No 94 – An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

Robert McCrum in The Guardian:

IshiKazuo Ishiguro is best known for The Remains of the Day, his Booker prizewinner; The Unconsoled, a very long novel of hallucinatory strangeness; and Never Let Me Go, a contemporary favourite, widely taught in schools. But the pitch-perfect novel that both expresses his Japanese inheritance and captures the haunting beauty and delicacy of Ishiguro’s English prose is his second work of fiction, An Artist of the Floating World. This, as its title suggests, is a tour de force of unreliable narration, set in post-second world war Japan, during the American occupation. Masuji Ono, a respected artist in the 1930s and during the war, but now retired, is garrulously recalling the past, from a highly subjective point of view. Ono, who passes his time gardening and pottering, opens his narrative with a low-key sentence whose meaning will resonate throughout the story: “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 kind of hesitation and uncertainty runs through everything that follows. Everything, for Ono, is provisional and troubling: art, family, life and posterity. An Artist of the Floating World presents, with the menace of an almost dream-like calm, the reminiscences of a retired painter in the aftermath of a national disaster. Outside his home, there’s the grim reckoning that has followed the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The American occupation is crushing Japan’s national pride. A new generation of young veterans wants to forget the imperial past. At the same time, in the tranquil seclusion of house and garden, Ono has time for some increasingly troubled reflections. He has lost his wife and son in the war, but lives on with two daughters, one of whom is married. But for a puzzling anxiety about his second daughter’s marriage negotiations, Ono could slip into old age. Instead, he must take “certain precautionary steps” against the necessary inquiries of his prospective son-in-law. It becomes clear that Ono’s past conceals some guilty secrets that “the artist” must reluctantly address, secrets that illuminate the larger themes of guilt, ageing, solitude and the baffling incomprehension between young and old.

More here.