It’s 1948, and retired Japanese artist Masuji Ono is watching his country rebuild — physically, emotionally, and politically — after the damage wrought by the second World War. He lost loved ones and his home was damaged, as were some of his regular haunts. Now his life revolves around his two adult daughters Setsuko and Noriko, and his young grandson Ichiro. Setsuko and Ichiro live far away, but Noriko lives with her father. A marriage deal is in the works, but the sisters are nervous because a previous negotiation fell through. Ono is oblivious to the risk, and even more importantly fails to grasp that his own pre-war activities could be damaging Noriko’s prospects.
Ono provides the narrative, and while there’s plenty of dialogue, a great deal is inside his head. Details drip out like water from a leaky faucet. He goes off on tangents, and sometimes references important events or conversations, but doesn’t fill in the details until later. He often ends a long story by saying it may not have happened exactly as he remembered it. Kazuo Ishiguro uses Noriko and Setsuko to fill in the blanks through conversations with their father. And his portrayal of the Japanese father-daughter relationship is brilliant. When Ono’s daughters challenge him, they do so in a very indirect way. They make suggestions instead of overt requests, even when the matter is of the utmost importance. As Noriko’s marriage negotiations begin, Setsuko is clearly worried about something from their past, and wants Ono to clear things up with certain associates:
“I wonder how Mr Kuroda is these days. I can remember how he used to come here, and you would talk together for hours in the reception room.”
“I’ve no idea about Kuroda these days.”
“Forgive me, but I wonder if it may not be wise if Father were to visit Mr Kuroda soon.”
“Mr. Kuroda. And perhaps certain other such acquaintances from the past.”
“I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying, Setsuko.”
“Forgive me, I simply meant to suggest that Father may wish to speak to certain acquaintances from his past. That is to say, before the Saitos’ detective does. After all, we do not wish any unnecessary misunderstandings to arise.”
“No, I suppose we don’t,” I said, returning to my paper.
I believe we did not discuss the matter further after that. Neither did Setsuko raise it again for the remainder of her stay last month. (p. 85)
As Ono reminisces on his pre-war artistic career the reader comes to understand his daughters’ concerns. But Ono is more savvy and self-aware than he lets on, and takes a personal risk at what he judges to be a critical point in the marriage negotiations.
This is one of Ishiguro’s early novels, and its style is much like The Remains of the Day, which is one of my all-time favorite books. An Artist of the Floating World is nearly as great, and highly recommended.