I've been on a Kazuo Ishiguro kick recently spurred by the release of his new, and very good, science fiction novel, Klara and the Sun. I recently recommended his debut novel, A Pale View of Hills, which I've only come to like more on further reflection. An Artist of The Floating World was Ishiguro's follow up to that, and it is an excellent one.
Ishiguro's mastery of subtlety is well on display here. Again there is an unreliable narrator. Again the characters are often talking around what they mean in heartbreaking ways. The narrator, Masuji Ono, is an an old artist in post-WWII Japan. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that he is reckoning with his actions during the war, specifically his move from a place among bohemian artists to essentially pumping out war propaganda. I have read books that talk about regret and reckoning with one's own complicity in the crimes of the times, and I have read books in which characters are reckoning with their lack of impact, but I have rarely read books that sit in the paradox of both at the same time. It's a powerful tension.
As in Pale View of Hills, the war looms in the background of the book. Like the previous novel, there are themes of authenticity and wondering about how to continue living that are not far off from the Existentialists. With the war came American influence, both in the dropping of the bomb and in the subsequent western influence on Japan. In both of Ishiguro's first two novels, the struggle between those American influences and Japanese culture, and the changing mores of the younger generation drive a lot of character motivation.
Another meditative, masterful novel. I expect I'll eventually read all of Ishiguro's books. Next up is a reread of The Remains of the Day for the first time in around a decade. Ishiguro saw that novel, one of his most famous, as a rewrite of this one in a British context. I look forward to returning to it with that in mind.
Highly recommended (though with reflection and a reread it could go up to Canon Worthy)