Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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"An Artist of the Floating World", Kazuo Ishiguro

June 11th, 2009 · No Comments · Asian, English, Japanese, Literature, Under-Rated

artistoffloatingworld1Synopsis: An aging painter contemplates his life as an artist of the ‘floating world’ (‘Ukiyo‘) of Tokyo’s pleasure seeking districts and struggles to come to terms with his place in post-war Japan.  Sometimes hindsight doesn’t come with 20/20 vision.

My Take: As you may have guessed by now, I have a real peccadillo for Japanese fiction. I love the nuance and non-linearity of the story telling and the subtlety of the characterisation. I appreciate the lack of exposition and the fact that in general, readers are left to scrutinise the thoughts, feelings and motivations of the characters with less direction than in much ‘Western’ literature (sweeping generalisations I know). While  Ishiguro has lived in the UK since the age of 5 and claims not to have been influenced by Japanese literature, I do think these ‘Japanese’ characteristics are deeply infused in his work.

In particular, I think the Japanese concept of ‘mono no aware’ strongly underpins Ishiguro’s body of work. It’s a bit of a difficult concept to explain, so I’ll quote from Wikipedia at this point:

Mono no aware ( mono no aware?, lit. “the pathos of things”), also translated as “an empathy toward things,” or “a sensitivity of ephemera,” is a Japanese term used to describe the awareness of mujo or the transience of things and a bittersweet sadness at their passing. The term was coined in the eighteenth century by the Edo-period Japanese cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga, and was originally a concept used in his literary criticism of The Tale of Genji, and later applied to other seminal Japanese works including the Man’yōshū, becoming central to his philosophy of literature, and eventually to Japanese cultural tradition.

This melancholy ‘awareness of the transience of things’ is a feature of all of Ishiguro’s books to varying degrees. Ishiguro employs a first person retrospective approach in each of his books that allows him to subtly, but deeply, explore the attitudes, emotions and motivations of of his protagonist. In this way, the revelation and resolution of the protagonist’s self-deceptions and mental obstacles to ‘awareness’ become the driver of the story arcs of each of his novels. As Ishiguro has said:

“As a writer, I’m more interested in what people tell themselves happened rather than what actually happened.”

In this sense, little actually ‘happens’ in Ishiguro’s books outside the mind of the protagonist. In fact, often his protagonists don’t even reach full awareness by the end of his novels – leaving many carefully developed plot threads ultimately unresolved. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it.

All of these characteristics of Ishiguro’s writing are clearly present in ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ Ishiguro’s second novel. In my mind this is Ishiguro’s strongest work and it’s not hard to see why it won a Whitbread Prize and was shortlisted for a Booker Prize. Given that the real joy of Ishiguro’s writing is the process of revelation, I won’t write too much about the contents of the novel, but suffice it to say, the societal upheaval of post-war Japan is fertile ground for Ishiguro’s style of contemplative reminiscence.

Highlight: Everything – just read it.

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