I’m currently reading An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is set just after the second world war in Japan and features the narrator, Ono, who appears to be a nice, gentle gentleman in a nice, gentle book. I have the feeling that something bad and ungentle is going to happen to him by the end of the book.
The reason for this feeling is that, as the novel goes on, the author is revealing, by virtue of the narrator’s interactions with the other characters, more and more about what Ono did in the past. And it seems that these deeds, although they were laudable at the time, are not in accordance with the zeitgeist that has arisen as a result the US occupation of Japan.
Basically, the narrator believes himself to be a good person, but the people around him do not. This creates a tension, achieved by the unreliability of the narrator in terms of how he conveys the ‘reality’ of his situation. The whole interest in the story (apart from the fact that it is an exquisitely rendered portrait of life in Japan after WWII) comes from the gradual revelation of this reality.
There is one particular scene, where the narrator, Ono, reflects on the falling through of an arranged marriage between his daughter and a man called Miyake, that demonstrates this.
In this scene we get these hints of the narrator’s unreliability: his daughters are talking about him behind his back; one of his daughters is continually prompting him to think deeply about the situation; and when he thinks about his interactions with his prospective son-in-law and his actual son-in-law he remembers that they both drop heavy hints about the cowardice of those now judged to be war criminal but do not see the shame involved in their acts during the war.
It’s interesting that the author seems to want us to see the narrator as being a person who is convinced of his moral good at the start of the book and then progressively sees himself as being in some way immoral. The way he views his memories, as a result of the prompts from others, are the key to this change.
It’s rather tragic, when you think about it, that the way we view ourselves and remember events can make all the difference between happiness and unhappiness. Hey-ho, such is the human condition.