Although the novel’s narrator, Masuji Ono, never describes the grief and pain he has suffered over a lifetime punctuated by trauma, the way these traumas impact him is suggested by the melancholy feeling that comes over him when he smells burning. The smell of burning brings two kinds of associations for Ono, both having to do with the loss of what is most precious to him. Burning’s first association is with the smoke produced by paintings being destroyed, and its second association is with the smoke produced by bombs. The smell of burning evokes both the trauma of having his own paintings destroyed by his father when he was fifteen years old, and the trauma of having accidentally caused the paintings of his protégé Kuroda to be burnt by the authorities. It also evokes the smell after a bomb killed Ono’s wife. Importantly, Ono’s father’s decision to burn Ono’s paintings only makes Ono more determined to become an artist against his father’s wishes, which ultimately leads to a split between Ono and his parents. While Ono never discusses the circumstances surrounding his rupture with his parents, the smell of burning is a symbolic link that associates his loss of his parents with the loss of his wife Michiko in a bomb attack. The smell reminds Ono vividly of both events. At the end of the novel, when Matsuda says the smell of burning these days usually suggests nothing more than a garden being cleared, the suggestion is that the post-war future will not be as marred by traumatic losses as the years of Ono’s life.
The Smell of Burning Quotes in An Artist of the Floating World
'Did you have authorization to bum those paintings?’ I asked.
'It's our policy to destroy any offensive material which won't be needed as evidence. We've selected a good enough sample. The rest of this trash we're just burning.'
'I had no idea', I said, 'something like this would happen. I merely suggested to the committee someone come round and give Mr Kuroda a talking-to for his own good.' I stared again at the smouldering pile in the middle of the yard. ‘It was quite unnecessary to bum those. There were many fine works amongst them.'