The Unreliable Narrator: Exploring Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World

How many voices can an author create? How evolved can craft be that there comes the point when the creator ceases to exist, and all that is left is the immersed reader, intruding in another world? The answer is Kazuo Ishiguro, the man who, for me, has taken first-person narration and a compromised narrative to the point of no return. Choose a character, and he will get into its skin like an invisible cellular organism with no home of its own. He will do so in so fantastic a way that it leaves you questioning the truth, like speaking to someone you aren’t too sure about. After he or she departs, you think, “What are they hiding? Am I in the dark?” 

An Artist of the Floating World is a masterpiece that glides in out and of many dimensions. On the one hand, it is a story of generations separated by a massive ideological gulf. On the other, it is about an older man attempting to come to terms with his mistaken philosophies. It is also a historical fiction set in the Japan of limbos; Japan, which has suffered because of its misplaced imperialism, been shattered by bombings and is now critical of the past and every person representing it. At the heart of it is an unreliable narrator, Masuji Ono. Once an acclaimed painter, Ono is our guide through post-World War II Japan and its sociopolitical and emotional trauma; felt in extremities like the once-vibrant pleasure districts destroyed by bombings and kids who loved Popeye and Godzilla.

The book is a contemplative journey, spread across four time frames: October 1948, April 1949, November 1949 and June 1950. We are introduced to a retired artist of great acclaim, Masuji Ono. Ono lives with his youngest daughter Noriko, and his attempts to secure a good match for her is a central theme. In the past, Noriko’s engagement had been called off. While Ono likes to believe that his family was more powerful than the boy’s, Noriko’s often belligerent behaviour suggests the unsuccessful engagement has more to do with Ono’s past. His older daughter Setsuko asks Ono to meet his acquaintances and rectify his errors should Noriko’s prospects inquire about the family’s history. This simple task is the starting point of his recollections, opening twisted alleys of memory.

We seek to understand concepts like Ono’s rise as an artist, his relationship with his students and peers, the moral chasm that exists between him, his sons-in-law and his grandson, and the politicisation of art. I have reasons to say that we seek to understand Ono’s life – the untrustworthy memory and what he is telling us. Ono’s narration is not dependable, and there is not a second perspective to corroborate what he is saying. This is displayed continually; Ono never completes an anecdote in one go, one recollection invariably gives rise to another or how he thinks he knows someone only for us to find that the person has no memory of him. What Ono thinks of himself does not resonate with people in that world. For his disillusioned son-in-law, Ono is one of the many traitors who led the country awry with grand plans of Japanese Imperialism that caused only pain and loss. Ono himself lost his son to the Manchurian War and his wife to a freak raid. The reader might assume these topics to be of particular importance to him. Still, Ono avoids speaking about any issue that exposes his emotional vulnerability and delves too much into his past affairs. Mentions of these deaths come and go, as little remarks stuffed into the larger scheme.  

Why our narrator is unreliable is a debatable topic. At first go, it can be age. After all, Ono is well-retired with two daughters and grandchildren. However, the irregularity in information can be attributed much more to more unpleasant circumstances than memory failing. As the novel progresses, Ono is revealed to have been a man of controversial associations. During World War II, Japan was an Allied Power alongside Germany and Italy. A considerable section of the population was pro-War, viewing any opposition to the war effort with great scepticism. Ono, a pro-government imperialist, broke away from his master and drawings of the floating world (a phrase used to describe Japan’s pleasure districts) to begin painting subjects that depicted military might. At the beginning of the war, he becomes a part of a state committee clamping down on unpatriotic art. Ono reports Karudo, once his protégé. As a result, Karudo’s paintings are burnt, and the police harass him. Ono tells us that he tried to step in and convince the authority to go easy on Karudo. However, whether it is the truth or just another way to hide his betrayal and cruelty, we don’t know.

The ideological tussle between Ono and his family members is an essential thread in the novel. To some extent, Ono realises that he was vastly mistaken during the war and the younger generation, like daughters and his son-in-law’s look at him with a degree of suspicion and contempt. The latter want men like Ono to take accountability for steering Japan on the wrong path. They now live in a post-war society where America is the centre of culture and politics. This is not a phenomenon that has gone down well with Ono, who would rather have his grandson enjoy samurais than behave like a cowboy. Although he claims to be unaware of his importance in society, we understand that Ono likes to think of himself as someone who has been quite influential, a part of the crème of the art world. Towards the end, when Setsuko (his older daughter) consoles him that his pro-militancy paintings weren’t influential enough to have caused massive harm, it is a very hurtful thought for him.

Like Ishiguro’s celebrated The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World is a beautiful lesson in restraint. The former is the story of an English butler whose commitment to service caused such emotional limitation that he could not pursue the woman he loved. In the latter, we have an ageing man whose convictions are failing him as he grapples with guilt and ethical tussles. War is an important occurrence in both, and more than war, the sides one chooses. In The Remains of the Day, the protagonist reflects on how the reputed British manorial lord he served sided with Nazi Germany because he did not know better. In such scenarios, as both age and regret become strong, exuberant or verbose writing would not be relatable. Ishiguro’s writing is fluid, hard-hitting, but not raw. His style is refined, elegant prose at its best, entirely moulded according to the narrator’s realities.  

An Artist of the Floating World was a delightful, very enlightening experience about a unique world that conventional reading may not expose one to. Despite being a history student, I was surprised at the nuance of ideology and radicalisation in post-War Japan that the author highlighted so brilliantly. The writing flows; through former pleasure districts, reception rooms in Japanese homes, the villas of master painters and pubs where artists gathered with pupils. Each of these spaces stands for a different ideology and a different time in Ono’s life. Ishiguro’s most outstanding merit is shaping his style in a way that changes with age. A young Ono is much more aggressive, while Ono as a grandfather is loving and almost endearing. The tonality changes beautifully, and this requires immense, almost God-gifted skill.

Ishiguro gifts his readers a story that is almost the truth but has enough cracks for falsities to creep in.

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7 Delightful Reads to Help You Overcome a Reader’s Block!

Sometimes, it is not easy to be a reader. We are expected to read all the time, and somewhere down the line, it creates a certain pressure to finish a certain number of books every year. While a utopia for a reader will be a corner overlooking the mountains and Ruskin Bond’s romanticism in the air, real-life is more complex and a lot more demanding. The space that childhood, school, and college allowed an individual to pursue reading contracts as one enters the hurried world.

There are days when you cannot read beyond two pages. There are days when you think you will read on your way to work, but you doze off in the cab. Then comes the worst predicament; prolonged periods of poor concentration. You’re stuck on one page. Finding another book might make things better, but unfortunately, it is the same struggle. Even if you do get to Page 20, you cannot recollect much. People do not talk about it enough, but a Reader’s Block is as real as a Writers Block. It is a phenomenon where you cannot finish a book or retain much of what you have read, no matter how much you try.

Why it happens is an elusive question. Reader’s Block is a frequent struggle for children and adults with ADD. It is also a side-effect faced by students of literature who have done so much reading for coursework that the idea of reading for pleasure becomes challenging. It may arise because you have not been experimenting with content. Alternatively, it can be the outcome of personal distress occupying your mind and leaving you with little time to think about anything else. This is real. This is fine.

What is the best way to get back into the groove of enjoying stories? At the core of the process is taking it easy and finding something exciting and new you can appreciate without feeling burdened. So, here’s a little list of lovely books that may help you to return to reading, gradually nourish the reader in you before you jump back into full force and finish Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose:

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

While several websites will list this as a children’s book, I vehemently oppose simplifying this masterpiece. While the exterior packaging is like a fairy tale, the book is beautifully written to address censorship and storytellers’ plight (especially relevant after the infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s issued by Ayatollah Khomeini). Even if one does not delve much into symbolism, there is no way you won’t enjoy the delightful wordplay and puns that are liberally sprinkled on the story. Almost every name is related to silence or speech. So, you’ll find a Princess Batcheet, and the antagonist’s army is called Chupwalas. The story flows like fine wine, and you will be hooked before you know it, flying across the Sea of Stories.

Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry

I’ve read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and it is spectacular. However, to say that Tales from Firozsha Baag is any less enjoyable is incorrect. Of course, the former is a more diverse picture of India, spanning a considerable period and involving characters from across the socioeconomic spectrum. On the other hand, Tales of Firozsha Baag is a collection of eleven short stories about the residents of a Parsi-dominated complex in Bombay. The stories are endearing and beautifully written. Their exceptional quality is Mistry’s manner of conveying the setting’s spatial characteristics. It is so detailed that you feel you are an intruder. Residents grapple with grief, sexuality, superiority and the happiness of living life on their terms. You will be pulled into the endearing whirlwind before you know it.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is a recent obsession, and I recommend this brilliant author for his elegant writing. In 1989, The Remains of the Day won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and was later adopted as a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Ishiguro’s writing style is peaceful. Nonetheless, it is incredible how he conveys emotional and political disruption through peace. The book is about an English butler who takes a road trip across the countryside and ponders over his life. I haven’t come across an author who can mould the narrative to the extent that you forget the author and begin to think of the book as a diary. It is a heartwrenching story, but one that flows very easily.

Chowringhee by Shankar

Shankar’s Chowringhee is a tale of love and loss as it unfolds in Shahjahan, a fictional hotel in the 1950s attracting Calcutta’s crème. An excellent translation has been done by Arunava Sinha, who perfectly captures the essence. Chowringhee is often overshadowed by Shankar’s two other books, which were made into films by Satyajit Ray. However, I recommend Chownrighee because of its simplicity and the author’s ability to fuse many stories into one exciting book. This is a skill somewhat absent in today’s storytellers who have come to enjoy multiple loose ends. Although Chowringhee was published in 1962, it is a delightful story whose emotions and themes transcend time. In 2019, Srijit Mukherjee adapted the book into a film, and that is best avoided. Read the book. It is unpretentious and unique.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a reliable favourite. Not only is it one of her most thrilling works, but it is the setting of the novel that truly sets it apart. Hercule Poirot is aboard the luxury Orient Express which gets stuck in a snowbank. A murder happens, and the killer is amongst the passengers as the thick snow made it impossible for anyone to escape. A sense of claustrophobia pervades the narrative as the train is stuck in an icy landscape with a killer on the loose. The fact that there is nowhere to go and nothing can be done makes Murder on the Orient Express a compelling read. It is also an interesting commentary about morality; when is murder justified? The book will keep you on your edge even after you know what has transpired.

Travelogues by Ruskin Bond

I have been told that I am biased towards Ruskin Bond, but I have hardly seen a reader who does not adore Rusty. Alongside his short stories and novellas, I would heartily recommend his travel writing like A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills, Hop On, All Roads Lead to Ganga, Roads to Mussoorie and Rain in the Mountains: Notes from the Himalayas. I cannot pinpoint why his writing is so unique. Maybe it is the old-charm of his humour, the inherent sense of adventure and the endearing mischief in his stories. 

Make time for these jewels, and you’ll find the mountain air of Dehra wafting into your room as the Himalayan rain pitter-patters on your city windowsill.If there is something about reading that is important to remember is that reading cannot be forced. Some of us enjoy books while others have entirely different pursuits. Even as children, some of us take to reading while others are not too keen on books. But if literature is your escape, then it is only sensible that you give yourself the time and space to appreciate it. Reading for pleasure must be a meaningful pursuit that makes you content. It is about the joy of stepping into another world and finding its secrets. It is not about how many books you finish in a month as much as it is about enjoying what you read. Take your time and savour the story. After all, reading is about happiness.

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