This novel addresses what most be one of the most difficult issues a country has to ever face – how to come to terms with overwhelming military defeat. For Japan, that defeat was all the more painful because its involvement in World War 2 was completely avoidable; and the end of the war, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was so shocking and final. Ishiguro’s approach to this subject is to walk slowly round it, quietly approaching and then stepping quickly away as soon as the subject becomes too raw.
I am being oblique myself, so let’s explain. The narrator is a painter, Masuji Ono. He has lost a son and a wife in the war, but his two daughters survived. One is married, one going through the complex engagement process used by some Japanese families at the time (and for all I know is still in use). The time structure used in the novel is complex; although each section is dated, giving the reader a misleading reassurance as to the date of the events of that part of the novel, Ono’s account wanders across time, gradually revealing details of his career as a painter. Discouraged by his father from becoming a painter, he runs away from home, and becomes an artist of the floating world – a particular genre of art in Japanese culture. Very slowly Ono reveals his involvement in the rise of Japanese nationalism, and his subsequent disgrace and the rejection of his values by the new, post-war generation. This reveal takes the whole of the story arc, and even then one is left with the distinct impression that we have only been shown a small part of the story.
Ono is a reflective character – he is certainly a deeply flawed narrator, as one would expect, but he is not delusional – he knows that his involvement in Japanese nationalism, painting pictures encouraging the expansion of the empire, was wrong, although the extent of that recognition is unclear: at one point he admits “There is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one’s life”, although this is more of a tactical admission than a confession. Ono’s grandson plays an important part in the narrative – he is a really brattish, unpleasant little eight year old, who is encouraged (by his grandfather) to believe that his gender gives him authority over his mother.
There is a profoundly hesitant, tentative feel to the novel. Ono tiptoes around his story, rarely revealing much, and constantly admitting that his recollection may be flawed, The reader is given enough information to piece together the outlines of his story, but only through hints and only rarely through actual events – at one point we are shown him visiting the house of one of his students, who he has reported for anti-nationalist feeling, and it is clear that the authorities reaction has been extreme – we found out earlier that the student was imprisoned for a long time, and apparently tortured. Ono doesn’t understand, or refuses to understand, his responsibility for this situation.
Ishiguro is clearly a writer of some considerable skill – the novel is quite deliberately like a delicate Japanese watercolour, done with great finesse. But the characters – other than Ono himself – are only tentatively drawn – we only see them through Ono’s eyes, and he doesn’t trouble to sketch them in any detail. The language is equally delicate and riven with hesitation, again quite deliberately, giving a very authentic flavour to the narrative, but leaving the reader a little bit detached and remote – the speeches are overly polite, and you need to listen carefully to the subtext to understand what the speakers are really saying, even if the narrator usually misses the point.
Japan clearly went through a huge, if self-imposed trauma before, during and after the Second World War. The price paid was enormous, and understanding how that come to happen is important. Ishiguro gives us one witnesses flawed account, but it is very much that of someone who had only a small, marginal involvement in the tragedy, and I am not sure that it tells enough of the story to be of any value. The book ends without any big reveal, and so does this review.