Walking along her local beach on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, American-Japanese author Ruth (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the author of this novel) spots an enigmatic package which seems to have been washed ashore. Recent rumours claim that remnants of the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan are finding their way across the ocean to these shores, but not quite this early. Underneath the barnacles Ruth can only identify the package as plastic debris and opts to take it home to be properly disposed of.
Yet when her insatiably curious partner, Oliver, probes the package, he discerns a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing a French edition of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Within, the book’s pages seem to have been replaced by blank sheets containing a Japanese script. A Tale for the Time Being sees Ruth unearth the narrative of Naoko Yasutani, a 16 year-old Japanese girl determined to the story of her putative 104 year-old radical feminist nun great-grandmother Jiko. However Nao instead becomes so absorbed in unfurling the circumstances of how she ended up in a French-themed café in Tokyo writing her great-grandma’s memoir that she instead ends up filling the book up recounting her own quite charming story of adolescence, the contents of this novel.
Ruth Ozeki with her novel “A Tale for the Time Being”
Its structure rocks back and forth from Nao’s diary to Ruth’s present day narrative as she reads the diary, recording her responses and its effect on her own lifestyle and outlook. Ruth details her growing empathy and affection for the diary’s narrator, but also her worry, knowing that the story must inevitably end with the diary being washed ashore on a distant island, presumably as a result of a tsunami. But Ruth is incredibly aware of her importance as a reader of this text, as is Nao who hopefully addresses her diary to an imaginative “you”, the presumed reader who will breathe new life into her story. The novel’s reflection on the writer-reader relationship resonates with us all as bibliophiles and one which fascinates Ozeki.
I adored the insight the novel gives into Japanese custom, culture and thought. This is only my second foray into Japanese literature (any other suggestions would be welcome?) after reading Murakami’s 1Q84 last summer, and I enjoyed the philosophical, meditative outlook that that seems to emanate from Japanese authors. One of the central themes pondered here is the proximity and the slight boundary between life and death. Ozeki’s exploration of this relationship reminded me of Shakespeare’s toying with comedy and tragedy in his plays, as despite the fact it seems that life and death, or comedy and tragedy are polar opposites, absolute extremes at opposite ends of the spectrum, both writers find that the difference between the two is instead a very fine line. But Ozeki furthers her exploration and asks (I think) the more profound question of what is means to exist or to not exist, and moreover her characters pose the possibility, based on theories in quantum mechanics, of multiple existences and multiple worlds. These ideas inevitably feed back into Nao’s narrative and the ominous question mark that lingers over the possible conclusions to he own story, but it also feeds into the meta-textual ideas about the multifarious narratives available to the author.
But probably the central theme of A Tale for the Time Being is that of the passage of time. Ozeki’s novel is one that zips through history, reflecting of ancient Zen masters before jolting to the present day as Ruth researches Nao and her family on Google and via e-mail before heading back to 1944/45 when Nao’s great-uncle Haruki struggles with the moral dilemmas of being obliged to fight as a kamikaze pilot during the Second World War. Then there is Nao writing her diary in Proust’s opus about lost time and then her later discovery of his sequel about Le Temps Retrouvé (time regained). What does it mean to exist within time? How is time separated? How do we relate to time at particular moments in our life? Such questions tie in with the novel’s wrangling with the problem of existence and life and death.
Yet despite the philosophic profundity of these ideas, Ozeki writes in relatively plain, accessible and lucid prose. She has a shining talent for storytelling and it was clear to me why this deeply pensive yet captivating and fervent novel, painted with all the colours of Japan, was shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize.