Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

A Tale for the Time Being

Posted by nliakos on February 5, 2016

by Ruth Ozeki (Viking 2013; ISBN 978-0-670-02663-0)
This is an incredibly rich, layered novel about Nao, a Tokyo high school girl, and Ruth, a half-Japanese American novelist living in British Columbia. They are linked by Nao’s diary, which mysteriously washes up on a beach on the island where Ruth lives with her husband Oliver, preserved in a freezer bag covered with barnacles, together with a wristwatch and a packet of letters, all contained in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. As Ruth reads the diary, she becomes obsessed with what may have happened to Nao, who was contemplating suicide and who also may have been in the Sendai area of Japan during the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.
The chapters alternate between Ruth’s discoveries and Nao’s diary. Nao, the purely fictional character, naturally writes in the first person in her diary, and she addresses her reader, Ruth, personally, reaching forward in time to someone she has never met, will never meet, and who may not exist at all, if the diary is never found. Ruth’s chapters are written in the third person, which is strange, because Ruth is Ruth Ozeki, or so it seems: she is a half-Japanese American novelist married to a Canadian named Oliver who lives on an island in British Columbia. It’s impossible to know how much of Ruth’s character is invented and how much is simply described. This blending of fiction and nonfiction is one of the many intriguing aspects of this book.
Beyond the stories of Ruth and Nao, there is a philosophical thread running through the book. Ruth and Nao (Now) explore the concept of time and those living beings who are captives of time (time beings). Nao’s father Haruki #2 is reading The Great Minds of Western Philosophy (and folding elaborate origami insects out of the pages he has finished reading), and Nao’s great-uncle Haruki #1 was a philosophy student before being drafted into the Kamikaze corps during World War II. His letters, and later, his secret diary, examine the appalling situation in which he finds himself toward the end of the war.
Nao’s story is terribly painful to read. After spending most of her life in California where her father worked for a tech company, she had to return to Japan when he lost his job and then most of his money in the dot com bubble. Unacculturated and obviously different from her classmates who have spent their whole lives in Japan, Nao becomes the target of unbelievably cruelty from her classmates and even her teacher, who lacks the courage to stand up to the student bullies. Nao keeps her treatment secret from her parents, believing (probably correctly) that there is nothing they can do to protect her. She eventually stops going to school. But her relationship with old Jiko, her father’s grandmother and a Buddhist nun, is what really saves her. Nao spends a summer living in the tiny temple near Sendai where Jiko lives with a younger nun. Jiko is not shocked by anything Nao tells her, and she teaches Nao to “sit zazen”, or meditate, as a way to gain power. Jiko is an unforgettable character.
There is also a layer of magical realism, in which Ruth visits old Jiko in her dreams, and Nao’s words disappear and then reappear in the pages of her diary. Eventually Ruth, and then Nao, learn from the secret diary Haruki #1 kept as he was preparing for his suicide mission that he ended his life by flying into the ocean rather than into an American ship. They also learn, in different ways, that Nao’s loser father also made a heroic choice of his own.
Nao writes in English with many Japanese phrases, which one of the Ruths translates and explains in footnotes–an interesting and unusual touch. I wish there had been a glossary too, since repeated Japanese words are only glossed the first time they appear, and I couldn’t always remember them.
The book provides a lot of food for thought, about many different issues. I was appalled at the cruelty of both the high school bullies and the military officers. It makes me sad that the Japanese, who can be such gentle and kind people, have this sadistic side, similar to what I read about in Unbroken and in the stories of the Rape of Nanking, the Korean “comfort women” and other Japanese atrocities in the ’30s and ’40s. I find this cruelty difficult to reconcile with the lovely Japanese people I have known in my life. Perhaps it’s not only a Japanese thing, but a human thing. Maybe we are all capable of terrible cruelty.

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