As I write this review now it will be my recollections and feelings on Ozeki’s novel at the present moment. If I was to defer the writing and start my thoughts tomorrow, it would be a different review, or would it? Today’s thoughts, tomorrow’s thoughts…same thing!
If you’re not familiar with Zen Buddhist teachings you may think I’ve finally cracked, or even if you are you may think I’m being a little too glib. I had no other way of starting this review but in the present moment, so off I went.
Ruth Ozeki’s novel is not your everyday bedtime read. Basically we have Ruth (herself) finding a Japanese lunchbox washed up on the shore of her island. In the box we have the diary of a teenage Japanese girl, Nao, the letters of a Kamikaze pilot (written in French to hide their content from his superiors) and Japanese writings and an antique watch. The diary is hidden within the covers of Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu” and contains Nao’s story of her 104 year old great grandmother Jiko a Buddhist nun. “A Tale For The Time Being” contains excerpts from the diary, footnotes and appendices made by Ruth, interspersed with Ruth’s story of researching the diary, writing her own novel and living her daily life on a remote island, with smatterings of the translated letters, Zen teachings and more.
It was hard to get a sense from the diary of the texture of time passing. No writer, even the most proficient, could re-enact in words the flow of a life lived, and Nao was hardly that skilful.
Home-leaving is a Buddhist euphemism for leaving the secular world and entering the monastic path, which is pretty much the opposite of what Ruth was contemplating when she pondered her return to the city. Zen Master Dogen uses the phrase in “The Merits of Home-Leaving” which is the title of Chapter 86 of Shohogenzo. This is the chapter in which he praises his young monks for their commitment to a path of awakening and explicates the granular nature of time: the 6,400,099,980 moments that constitute a single day. His point is that every single one of those moments provides an opportunity to reestablish our will. Even the snap of a finger, he says, provides us with sixty-five opportunities to wake up and to choose actions that will produce beneficial karma and turn our lives around.
Those two sections are taken from Ruth’s part of the novel, where she is learning the detail attached to Nao’s diary. But she is reading it in real time and at the same time building a relationship with that writer who actually entered our book before she entered our book!!!
If you’ve ever tried to keep a diary, then you’ll know that the problem of trying to write about the past really starts in the present: No matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the then and you can never catch up to what’s happening now, which means that now is pretty much doomed to extinction. It’s hopeless, really. Not that now is ever all that interesting. Now is usually just me, sitting in some dumpy maid café or on a stone bench at a temple on the way to school, moving a pen back and forth a hundred billion times across a page, trying to catch up with myself.
As you’ve probably figured out, this is very much a tale of time, it includes quantum physics parallel universes, reactions to 9/11, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (which may be the reason why the diary has washed ashore in Canada), as well as delving into the mind of a kamikaze pilot who knows his moment in time is coming to a close:
I have written to you of my decision to die. Here is what I did not tell you. In either side of me, my comrades sigh and groan, restless in their sleep, and outside the insects cry, but the ticking of the clock is the only sound I hear now. Second by second, minute by minute…tick, tick, tick…the small dry sounds fill every crevice of silence. I write this in the shadows. I write in the moonlight, straining my ears to hear beyond the cold mechanical clock to the warm biological noises of the night, but my being is attuned only to one thing, the relentless rhythm of time, marching toward my death.
If I could only smash the clock and stop time from advancing! Crush the infernal machine! Shatter its bland face and rip those cursed hands from their tortuous axis of circumscription! I can almost feel the sturdy metal body crumpling beneath my hands, the glass fracturing, the case cracking open, my fingers digging into the guts, spilling springs and delicate gearing. But no, there is no use, no way of stopping time, and so I lie here, paralyzed, listening to the last moments of my life tick by.
This is a complex novel that explores suicide, culturally and from a number of angles (including kamikaze pilots of course), Japanese modern culture, fetishes, environmental issues, radioactive particles, sub species, Latin, bullying, a sense of home, origami beetles made from "The Great Minds of Western Philosophy" and more. But quite simply it is an engrossing tale, a mystical balance between a number of eras, cultures and styles. If you want something a little different, a slight insight into Zen Buddhism, but at the same time an engrossing story then this is definitely one to pick up. Surely will become a favourite of many a book club as the subjects covered are broad and enlightening.
The only times I was slightly put off was the movement from first person, to third person, to second person (depending upon the author of the section you are reading) but this distraction was momentarily and hey there are 6,400,099,980 moments that constitute a single day.
I’ve only read the three novels from the 2013 long list so far, but this one is the standout for myself to date. Another ten to go and I may well have changed my mind. I may even change it before you’ve stumbled across and read this blog post!!!