Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, Malaysia. He divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town. The Gift of Rain, his first novel, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It has been translated into six languages. His second and latest novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and has also been shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012. It has been translated into eight languages. Here Twan writes about Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World.
Tan Twan Eng on An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro's most well known novel is The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize in 1989. But for me, his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, published three years earlier, is a book I keep returning to.
The novel is narrated by Masuji Ono, an elderly Japanese man who was once a famous and respected artist before and during World War II. But with Japan's surrender, the world he once knew is fast disappearing, fading as quickly as his reputation. Post-war and defeated Japan doesn't want to be reminded of its past, and Ono is a part of that past.
The story begins quietly, its restraint setting the tone for the entire book: 'If on a sunny day you climb the steep path leafing up from the little wooden bridge still referred to around here as "the Bridge of Hesitation", you will not have to walk far before the roof of my house becomes visible between the tops of two gingko trees.'
Three years after the end of the war, Ono now spends his retirement tending his garden and the repairs his ageing house demands. The elder of his two daughters is already married with a young son, and Ono is trying to arrange a suitable match for his younger daughter Noriko. But his role in the war comes back to make things difficult.
Ono began his career as a painter of Japanese kitsch for foreigners, 'geishas, cherry trees, swimming carps and temples', but he allowed politics to enter his art, and he started creating propaganda artwork in support of the government's war efforts, paintings based on Western models. Paintings that extol Japanese aggression and militarism.
Ono's career reflected Japan's drive to modernize by following the examples of Western nations: discarding the old for the new, acquiring colonies and expanding their territories.
The recurring themes in Ishiguro's books are already set firmly in place with his second novel: the overlap between private memory and public perception; the concern that individuals find themselves adhering to a set of beliefs they think are correct, but that with the passing of time are shown to be morally questionable. Ono comes across as ruminative, certain of the integrity of his actions, but he is also vague and pedantic. The more we read, the more we realize that his narrative is compromised by self-contradiction and self-deception.
All the things that fascinate me as a novelist are in this book: regret, the unreliability of memory, the pains of ageing, solitude, loneliness. Ishiguro's very spare style of writing appeals to me. Nothing much happens in the book at all, and yet something about it haunts me every time I read it.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]