Friday, August 14, 2015

After the war ends

I just read Kazuo Ishiguro's "An Artist of the Floating World." I picked it up in a hurry. I was thinking about Japan and Hiroshima. I knew I liked his writing. I did not give much thought to what the story might be.

The book is about a retired artist and teacher of art, Ono. The storyline is just an excuse for us to learn what he is thinking and remembering, but it begins with Ono trying to arrange a marriage for his daughter, Noriko, and then uses his reflections on a few family conversations to get us thinking about something that rarely catches the eye.

Rarely, even for people like me who do spend time reading about conflict and its aftermath.

The story is set in the period right after World War II, when Japan was being refashioned under the auspices of an American occupation. Ono has lost a son in war, and has also, like much of Japan, been a part of the militarisation of Japanese culture in the preceding decade or so. He has willingly been a part--however small or large--of the state's mobilisation of society in support of its military campaigns across Asia. The war is over, a climate of shame and distancing now surround the war effort and people like Ono have to live uneasily with their work--neither acknowledged nor forgotten. Ono moves from denial to expressing remorse to finding a way to justifying his actions in the course of the novel.

There are no direct conversations about this issue between Ono and his family or acquaintances. One reads the situation--of a society coming to terms with its own temporary transformation--through Ono's thoughts. Even the family's comments are very subtle--the elder son-in-law expresses disgust over those involved in the war effort going unpunished, the elder daughter hints that their family may be coming up short in the pre-marital investigations and Ono simply adds these things up his own way.

The larger questions the book raises are valid even where the war or conflict effort is more marginal than it was in 1930s Japan. Are we all complicit in actions a state takes in our name, when we do not expressly protest? When all of society seems to be moving in a certain direction, is it right or fair to single out individuals for their small part in a large war-machine? What happens after a war? Who gets to be called a war criminal and who is to be labeled a victim of circumstance? There are no answers to this. The book ends on a surprising note; having seemed to alert Ono at every turn on the consequences of his wartime actions, his family dismisses the importance of anything he did, cautioning him not to have delusions of grandeur.

This is a book I will remember whenever I sit down to write about post-conflict justice and reconciliation and whenever I participate in discussions on impunity. 

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