I put out a chair on the porch of my old house whose renovations are nearly completed and started to read this book. I was supposed to be responsible for taking care of the day’s activities, but I knew there was nothing significant that I could contribute to the workers who were pasting tiles on the kitchen wall. I must mention here that the house was built in the 50s and it is undergoing a makeover this year. The workers looked at me in equal measure of suspicion and curiosity. One of them picked up the book and flipped pages to see what kept me engaged while they were toiling inside.
What is the true realm of art? The real world of pain, poverty and politics; or the floating world of pleasures and fantasy? This seems to be the foundation of the novel ‘An Artist of the Floating World.’ The artist is safe in his floating world. He may enjoy all the experiments he does with elements of pleasure. People either admire it or ignore it. But when it comes down to the real world and influences people over matters that can affect daily lives and ideas, he is scrutinised, celebrated and admonished as and when the mood of the mob changes.
There were two themes in the book that connected with me as a reader. The first is about the old making way for the new and , the second; is owning up to your past. I might even add a third aspect of the book to humour myself i.e. – the methods employed by the feminine gender to control men in a world where patriarchy is slowly falling apart.
The protagonist of the story, Masuji Ono is a renowned artist from the pre- WW II era of Japan. He is a famous figure who had a pivotal role in shaping the public opinion in favour of the Emperor and his vision to establish an imperial kingdom. He is someone who grew up with a natural talent which was nourished by his guru Mori-San. Like every student-mentor relationship ends, even theirs break after Masuji grows out of his mentor’s ideologies which he describes as below:
“His influence over us was not, of course, confine merely to the realms of painting. We lived throughout those years almost entirely in accordance with values and lifestyle, and this entailed spending much time exploring the city’s ‘floating world’ – the night time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the backdrop of all our paintings.”
He along with another artist – colleague Matsuda decide to represent the real world through art and also prime their audience to a future where Japan is no longer a country of impoverished laborers , but an empire and world power in its own right. Though the novel doesn’t explicitly mention the impact of their work on the public opinion, one can deduce that the awards and respect given to them are in proportion to their intellectual standing in society.
Masuji now lives in post war Japan that is rebuilding itself and simultaneously criticising the pre- war establishment for misleading it into devastating war. The thought of having misled people from the past haunts the old guard as well. Some even kill themselves as a mark of apology to the youth of the country. The sideling of old leadership and imperial ambitions under the Emperor in favour of American ideals of democracy and individual rights is something that forces Masuji to contemplate over his career and his accomplishments under the previous establishment.
The first person to challenge Masuji’s world is his grandson, someone who starts enacting cowboys instead of Japanese heroes. The second one is his daughter whose thoughts are primed by her husband. His son- in –law’s thoughts are in sync with the popular opinion of post war Japan. That young brave kids died in hordes while the cowards who led them to death are still enjoying life. No one in Masuji’s family point fingers at him, but they constantly attack the old guard and attempt to reshape his views of the era that is gone.
Would they have done the same if Japan was on the winning side? One wonders.
The narrator fills in large chunks of anecdotes and stories from his past between moments and incidents in his present life. This back and forth movement of the story line keeps the reader alert and aware about the kind of contrasts that the author intends to portray. In addition to that , one also tends to draw parallels to ones own life as the story flows. Kazuo Ishigoru, is not a master of creating moments that make you go wow, but he keeps a patient and curious reader hooked to his narrative till the end. His decision not to reveal everything about the characters of his story adds to its beauty . The reader is given hints to unravel the puzzle for himself.
As I consumed the pages of this book I could draw parallels with my own neighborhood and the changes it had undergone over the decades. I was particularly astonished by the changes in the past decade in which we had rented out this place. Many neighbors had solded out their houses. Some erstwhile houses were reduced to empty plots.
Also, the new generation (my brother and I) seemed to be taking over the house and the shift in our world view compared to that of my elders is pretty evident in our routine conversations. My grandfather was someone who was deeply religious and was a member of at least three temple administrations in our town, i.e. Tumkur. On the other hand myself and my brother have flirted with the ideas of atheism and questioned the authority of god. In the end, all are just OK with everyone’s doubts and possibilities. No one rakes up the topic anymore. Both of our extreme views have mellowed down to the centre over a period of time.
The protagonist in this book also reminds me of my grandpa’s artistic inclinations. He was someone who organised Ganesh Pandals in the heart of the city (i.e. Bal Bhavan grounds in MG road) . He was particular about the beauty of Ganesh idols displayed and went as far as Pune to procure idols that lived up to his taste. After his demise, the group which he led also disintegrated. Grand Ganesh Pandals no longer happen in that place today.
He was also someone who adored his grandchildren, just like Masuji. I remember sitting near his pillow and pretending to play tabla on his balding head.
Masuji’s memories of the past era is closely tied to the pleasure district of his town, one that is being pushed to oblivion just like the glory of pre – War times. The centre point of his fame and social life in those times happens to be the last building that is still standing in the pleasure district; a certain place called Migi Hidari. He recounts how he himself was responsible for the birth of the place and the constant crowd that was present in it during his days of fame.
Public rage against people of the past era is attributed to multiple rejections of his daughter Noriko by prospective suitors and their families. Setsuko, his elder daughter asks him to ‘take care’ regarding his image in order to ensure his daughter’s marriage to a respectable family. Masuji is unable to disown his career which he had worked hard to build. He is also shattered when his own pupils decide to deride past accomplishments done under his guidance in order to seek acceptance in the post war Japanese society. He begs one of his students Shintaro not to deride the good work which was done in good faith.
‘Shintaro’, I said, ‘Why don’t you just own up to the past? You gained so much credit at the time for your poster campaign. Much credit and much praise. The world may now have a different opinion of your work. But there is no need to lie to yourself.’
Eventually, Masuji yields to his new family and their demands. This, he does in steps. First, he yields to his grandson who no longer admires Japanese heroes or symbols. Next he admits the ‘fallacy’ of his work in order to ensure the acceptance of his daughter. Lastly he wishes that the new generation succeeds with new set of values that are imported from the Americans.
By the end of the book I was wondering if I would be brave enough to own up to my past, ie my present self and ideologies when I grow old. Are my values the ones that will stand the test of time. How will I face the future ? Some deep unanswerable questions lingered in my mind
As they say, very often , the book reviews the reader and not the other way around.