A Tale for the Time Being
Canongate (Text in Australia)
This review constitutes part of a challenge undertaken by myself and Simon from The Blether.
Theodore Adorno is quoted as saying "There can be no poetry after Auschwitz."
Does this mean there can be no poetry after 9/11? After the Tsunami that rocked the coast of Japan in 2011? What about MH370?
The truth of the matter is that words are one of the only ways that the human species knows how to console themselves in the face of tragedy. I think perhaps it comes from an impulse towards closure, a need to explore the why and how of big events. Writing can also serve the meditative purpose of helping a person come to terms with the fact that sometimes there can be no explanation.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is a novel which explores the liminal space pre and post Tsunami in Japanese culture. It is narrated by two voices: by Nao, (Yasutani Naoko) who is writing a diary to an unseen 'you' figure, documenting her decision to commit suicide, and by Ruth, a present day Japanese expatriate living on a small Canadian island with her partner. This Ruth figure shares a name, home town and relationship with the author, and is a writer herself, but I saw her as somehow divorced from the author in her ability to influence events in the book.
This novel bucks the traditional concepts of genre, being epistolary, realistic, and also at times science fictional. When Ruth finds Nao's diary, along with some other relics in a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach, she is drawn into Nao's story in a compelling fashion. At first it seems like she has no agency in what happens in Nao's story, but after a string of bizarre coincidences, it becomes apparent that stranger, more dreamlike forces are at work. One of the things I found most compelling about Nao's narrative in particular was the candid nature of its confessions. Nao tells the reader about horrifying ijime (bullying) that borders on rape and grievous bodily harm, about her father's repeated attempts to commit suicide, and about how her life leads her down a path that ends in prostitution and the possibility of being murdered by a hentai (pervert).
Because of the duality of the narrative, the reader is given a sense of hopelessness in reading Nao's story; because the belongings have washed up among detritus washed out to sea by the tsunami, second narrator Ruth imbues the reader with her own sense that Nao must have been one of the thousands upon thousands lost in the tragedy. The evidence in support of this begins to mount, as Ruth's searches online for traces of events mentioned in the diaries show up with clues that disappear. She and her partner Oliver are haunted by a Jungle Crow, native to Japan and NOT Canada, which seems to be an omen of bad news. As Ruth distracts herself more and more with the diary, she begins to grow more anxious about its outcome, and dreams of Nao's great grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist Nun, coming to her with premonitions. These dreams continue throughout the book, and are key in its conclusion.
The book takes a strange and unsatisfying turn towards the end when the diary begins to become not a historical object but one of the future. The words disappear from the end of the diary prompting Ruth to have to seek out the ending of the story by intervening through her dreams. To me, it is this implausible ending that caused the book not to win the Man Booker Prize. In a sense, it felt like by giving the reader/narrator some control over what happened to Nao, Ozeki shied away from the true tragedy of life, and also mitigated her responsibility for the fate of that character. The effect was a distancing. One moment I was sitting on a bus stop in Sendai with Nao, hoping we would get to Jiko before she died and the next I was questioning the sanity of a character who had up to now been rational and a little lonely.
Nonetheless, I will definitely reread this book, if only for its brilliant dialogue with the aftermath of culture surrounding the Tsunami, and for its immersion in a culture so alien to my own that it almost feels no different at all.
Four out of Five stars.