Monday, September 02, 2013

Are You A Time Being?

Sitting at the cafes in London, it was rather unnerving to glance up and find pairs of eyes staring at the book I was reading. No idea if it's got anything to do with the writer, the cover illustration or the title. Don't even know if they're on the bestseller's list or something. They seem innocuous.

One of these books is 'A Tale for the Time Being' by Ruth Ozeki. I enjoyed her earlier book 'My Year of Meats'; bought her new book and brought it along as a holiday read. (Read reviews here, here and here, or watch an interview of Ruth Ozeki by Canongate Books.)

Set in contemporary Japan today, after the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and all that ensued, 16-year old schoolgirl Nao Yasutani's diary was washed up off the coast of British Columbia, and was found by Ruth, a frustrated Japanese-American novelist who lived on the island and was taking a walk along the beach. She found small plastic bags neatly wrapped within a bigger barnacle-covered one. The contents held a diary in its "adolescent purple handwriting that sprawled across the page." The diary held a Proust book cover 'À la recherche du temps perdu'. How apt. In search of lost time.

Readers get a glimpse into Nao's life growing up in California, her subsequent return to Japan, the inability to assimilate, high school bullying, teenage angst, how she went to live with her grandmother Jiko, in the temple on the mountain; the progressive Buddhist nun helped to lift her from total despair. Midway through, from Ruth's reading, we understand that old Jiko died in March, and Nao promised to return every year to the temple to help with the memorial. The temple was located north of Sendai, near the coast and the epicenter of the earthquake, and more or less in the path of the tsunami. So Ruth had helped us surmise that on the 11th of March in 2011, Nao had been mostly likely there, and knew the wave was coming, and packed all these items into plastic bags to protect them from the water. We get all the details about her life. Nao describes herself as a "time being". Plenty of footnotes on each page explaining the Japanese words and references used. Very considerate and detailed for readers who don't understand Japanese. It's effectively an exceedingly well written personal blog.

......a small stack of handwritten letters; a pudgy bound book with a faded red cover ; a sturdy antique wristwatch with a matte black face and a luminous dial. Next to these sat the Hello Kitty lunchbox that had protected the contents from the corrosive effects of the sea...... 
The letters appeared to be written in Japanese. The cover of the red book was printed in French. The watch had markings etched onto the back that were difficult to decipher, so Oliver had taken out his iPhone and was using the microscope app to examine the engraving. "I think this is Japanese, too," he said.

Later on in the book, towards the end, Ruth, Oliver and Muriel were having a chat. Ruth steered the conversation back to the diary, now no longer just a flat book, because apparently the pages magically shifted. It was a legacy of a human being, whom we're all wondering if there's a chance that she could be alive at this point in time.

...She explained how she had riffled through to the end of the book to ascertain that all the pages were filled, only to have those same pages suddenly go blank, just as she was about to read them. She looked at Oliver for confirmation. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. 
"Weird," Muriel said. "Excuse me for asking, but have you guys been smoking a lot of pot?"

Aside from the mystery of the missing and additional pages that appear overnight in Nao's diary, and that was why Ruth couldn't reach the end of the diary, Muriel, a retired anthropologist, offered two theories,

"Anyway", she continued, "my theory is that this crow from Nao's world came here to lead you into the dream so you could change the end of her story. Her story was about to end one way, and you intervened, which set up the conditions for another outcome. A new 'now', as it were, which Nao hasn't quite caught up with." ...

And the second theory of which Ruth didn't like very much.

"Well, it's akin to my reader's block theory. That it's your doing. It's not about Nao's now. It's about yours. You haven't caught up with yourself yet, the now of your story, and you can't reach her ending until you do."

Ruth Ozeki, the writer of this book, has weaved a fascinating tale of two lives, and involving herself in it, in the similarities of Ruth, as the protagonist in the book, and Ruth, the writer. There isn't such thing as 'coincidence' in a novel. Of course there's something to be read in Ruth picking it up, and realizing their shared cultural heritage, but vastly different life experiences. Nao's diary became like a soap opera that Ruth had to finish reading.

I avoided thinking too deeply into the wide themes covered in the book. It's one of those novels that don't seek to put a definitive ending or conclusion, in spite of connecting two humans across the seas and time. It's up to the readers to decide what they want to take away from the story. Just so you know, Ruth did finish reading Nao's diary, to the final page, at 3:47 am one morning. "There were no more words and no more pages......The page hadn't changed." The epilogue, in the form of a little letter to Nao, is the only way that this story could reach the ending that readers wonder about.

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