Monday, November 14, 2011

An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro

A documentation of the life of a patriotic artist during pre- and post- World War II Japan through the eyes of an unreliable narrator.

Simple, Serious


No profanity

Favorite Quote:
“One supposes all groups of pupils tend to have a leader figure – someone whose abilities the teacher singles out as an example for the others to follow. And it is this pupil by virtue of his having strongest grasp of his teachers ideas, who will tend to function as the main interpreter of those ideas to the less experienced or the less gifted pupils. But by the same token, it is this same leading pupil who is most likely to see the shortcomings in the teachers work, or else develop views of his own divergent from those of the teacher. In theory, of course, a good teacher should accept this tendency- indeed welcome it as a sign that he has brought his pupil to a point of maturity. In practice, however, the emotions involved can be qute complicated. Sometimes when someone has nurtured a pupil long and hard, it is difficult to see any such maturing of talent other than treachery and some regrettable situations are apt to arise”

“The finest, most fragile beauty an artist can hope to capture drifts within those pleasure houses in the dark”.

From a writer’s point of view, writing in first person can have serious drawbacks. While it helps bring the reader closer to the book, it also risks monotony, since the writer cannot delve deeper into other characters. So, a typical first-person narration has enough twists and turns to keep the reader riveted to the central character themselves.
Ishiguro on the other hand, tries nothing of that sort in this book. On the contrary, except for a couple of memories, the story of Masuji Ono is fairly straightforward, at least in the beginning. However, on reading it through, the reader realises that he is dealing with an unreliable narrator, which suddenly makes the straightforward story develop many more layers, most of them unknown and assumed.
The floating world, for an artist in the early twenties, meant a nigh-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink, which formed the backdrop of all their paintings.
After reading the book though, one cannot help but wonder if the title was also used to show an artists’ life in the 6 years of war, which marked a transient stage in Japan in terms of ideologies, beliefs and leadership.

In October 1948, Japan is still trying to come to terms with the massive damage, physical and mental, the war had created. That made it difficult for Ono to find a suitable groom for his second daughter Noriko. She had become caustic after one of the marriage talks fell through in 1947. Ono believed that she and his elder daughter Setsuko thought him to be the cause of it, which was confirmed when the latter asks him to take “precautionary steps” to ensure that the talks went smoothly.
While Ono initially believed it could be because of the difference in status, he slowly began revisiting his former colleagues to ensure that they would maintain a high opinion of him in case of any investigations. The story thus develops, through the negotiations and the daughters’ insinuations in the present, and through his memories of the past.

Ono’s father was against his becoming an artist, and believed that, as predicted by a wandering priest, he had a weak streak and a tendency towards deceit and slothfulness. Though he does not stand up to his father then, he was very passionate about his interest and decided to leave home to pursue it. After seven years of working in a firm where quantity and speed were more important than quality work, he joined the patronage of a famous painter and printmaker Seiji Moriyama (Mori-San).
Seven years into the patronage, he meets Matsuda, who influences him to use his art for a greater cause, and for inspiring the country to move forward. By constant provocation, Matsuda showed Ono how the country was being run by greedy politicians and businessmen, and the voice of Imperial Majesty of Japan was getting drowned. So, from painting the images from the pleasure world, Ono started working on political artworks to convey stronger messages, much to the disliking of his master, Mori-san, and he was made to leave.
The late twenties and early thirties of Ono’s life have not been documented, but we can make out that he had become very successful and rose to influence. With the commencement of war, Ono joined the State government as an artist and the member of the cultural committee, and also, as the official advisor to the office of unpatriotic activities.

By the end of the war, the remaining younger generation was bitter towards the older one for supporting the Imperial Majesty, and for “leading them astray”. Some of the remaining men started committing suicide or Hara-Kiri as an apology for their actions. When he realised that his second daughter Noriko’s current proposal could also be in danger because of his past, he admitted his mistake to the groom’s family, saying that he had believed he was acting in good faith. The proposal then goes off smoothly.
However, the simple transition from the present to the past through reminiscence had been marked with various lapses in Ono’s memory. When Setsuko mentioned that she had never asked him to take precautionary measures, and that Ono was never a man of influence, we start questioning Ono’s narrative. He is never completely sure of his conversation with others, leading us to question his lucidity. His faith in his high stature and position keeps increasing exponentially with his memories, until Setsuko mentions (or is it remind?) that he was just an artist and nothing more.

The flow is simple and effortless. To an extent, the erratic jump between the present and the various pasts serves to keep the story interesting. However, “if” there is a puzzle to be solved here, I am yet to solve it. Taken at face value, the book shows how tremulous the post-war Japan society had been, and how the patriotic population were suddenly termed traitors. According to Ono:

“There is surely no shame in mistakes made in the best of faith. It is surely a thing far more shameful to be unable or unwilling to accept them.”

The book may, on a parallel track, be showing how the new Japan is developing – americanized, democratic and with real American idols like Indiana Jones and Popeye. The reader can sense the disgruntled tone of the author here, and can hazard a guess that the author was trying to vindicate the older generation for what they had done.

In a typical Ishuguro style, this book is simple and clean. However, it is not memorable in terms of plot, writing style or the characterisations. While it provides an interesting light on the society of Japan in the late 40s and early 50s, it is neither a light read nor an enlightening one.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mother Pious Lady - Santhosh Desai

A collection of Desai's take on the common mannerisms of a middle-class Indian and the country at large.

Simple, Witty


Favorite Quote:
(M S Dhoni) exemplifies an attitude that small town India seems to possess in plenty – The lack of fear of failure.
We never travel alone – we travel with our entire way of life and sometimes that has trouble fitting into an airline cabin.

I haven’t read Santosh Desai’s column in TOI. That resulted in my approaching the book with minimal expectations, and was pleasantly surprised at its contents. Sadly enough, the high expectations developed mid-way through the book fell woefully short by the end. To be fair, the book is as interesting, unique and colourful as its cover.
The chapters are divided into three sections – Where do we come from, new adventures in modernity and dilemmas of change, thus moving progressively to the bigger picture. Each chapter has, on an average, 10 topics, which are about 1-2 pages long. The author thus cleverly ensured that even if the reader strayed, he can pick it up from where he left off.
If you are a typical middle-class Indian who travelled by trains, watched doordarshan, travelled with family in scooters, played antakshari and enjoyed the street food, the book will be a catalogue of all these happy memories. Apart from making you nostalgic, Desai also adds his own reasoning to these incidents, which are equally a revelation and a spoiler. As an example of the latter, at the end of the chapter describing the civilised middle crease in the trousers, Desai concludes by saying:

When we crease our shirts and comb our hair, we impose on ourselves a discipline; we reaffirm that we belong to a group and that we abide by its rule. By doing so, we hope that the system will in turn abide by us. This, of course, does not always happen, but as long as we believe, hope lives.

While the sentence formation here is beautiful, I find it overstretching. In my case, the central crease is courtesy the local iron-wallah, and I usually don’t notice it. My pants, creased or otherwise, do not reflect my thoughts or hopes from the society. All the chapters in the first section draw similar parallels between what we did and what we expect, and to be fair, Desai hits the mark most of the times. It is his misses that stand out.
Section two becomes an amalgamation of the contrasting tones of section one and three. The chapters in this part focuses mainly on modern India, and youth Icons (from Rakhi Sawant and Shah Rukh Khan to MS Dhoni). However, where Desai was a passive intelligent narrator and observer in the first section, with larger issues in hand (media and politics mainly), he becomes either questioning or preachy. The passiveness and the objectivity were lost in his quest for being witty and sarcastic. For example, his take on Indian slums ends thus:

The slum is not the ‘other’ India and Dharavi is not an aberration. It is both a condemnation and a celebration of who we are. We need to own it, change it, admire it and hate it. We don’t need to ignore it. And if some Western director makes a film about it, we don’t need to fear it.

If Desai wanted to use this book as a medium to show his analytical prowess and reasoning power, he has succeeded. But I wish he had stopped when he was ahead, and not joined the hoard of gasbags who think that by raising the “right questions” and by vague & sage advices, the country will improve.

Its difficult to give a final verdict for this book. Parts of it are brilliant, and some are downright mediocre. However, it is ideal for a 15-minute-read-every-night before sleeping.