This blog examines how Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World (1986) implicitly reveals the trauma of the protagonist (inspired by Anne Whitehead’s observation: “if trauma is at all susceptible to narrative formulation, then it requires a literary form which departs from conventional linear sequence”).
- non-linear, meandering narration: suggests that he can’t really let go of the past, that it is always present in his mind.
- highly subjective narration (first person, but an almost pleading second-person voice, asking the reader to consider things from his perspective).
- low modality dialogue and repressed emotions when people talk to each other.
- the way in which the landscape / setting of an exterior world of destruction mirrors the interior world of Ono’s trauma.
While the psychological trauma of losing a war was arguably one of the greatest causes of Germany’s world quest for power during the mid-twentieth century, it is indubitable that the Second World War’s psychological impact had far outweighed its physical or material harm. It did so to the extent that it bred another war—one waged on ideology and more importantly, one waged in denial. This is the issue at the centre of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1986 prose fiction novel, following a veteran painter, Masuji Ono, who, in attempting to reconcile his past even before he considers contemplating the present or the future, looks inward to a burgeoning spirit. An Artist of the Floating World provides a thought-provoking and complex exploration of a country destroyed by war and on the precipice of recovery. For Ono, dealing with a world engaged in a cold war is perplexing, and inevitably leads to internal conflict: a manifestation of trauma.
It could be said that Ishiguro’s novel is a house of mirrors: a single, true source, reflected as a naturally occurring, manipulated illusion. Ono’s intransigence—a corollary of his patriotic fervour, is the sole and true source of his manipulated self-image. When Ono reaches out to contact the threshold of his personal traumas, he encounters manifestations of the present that attract him to vestiges of the past that ultimately cultivate his troublesome self-image. It is no coincidence that Ono’s magum opus is entitled ‘Complacency’. He represents all that he opposes. Ono is the mirror’s reflection—not its source. Ono prides himself in the aspiration ‘to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary.’ Accordingly, this ‘surely deserves admiration, even if in the end [one] fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions.’ The philosophy that Ono lives by is subverted by the fact that he did not ‘fail’ and lose ‘a fortune on account of his ambitions’. Instead, his art and his legacy is not perceived as having failed, but having passed; it is at best ignored, and at worst omitted. But never having failed.