A Tale for the Time Being
By Ruth Ozeki
REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar
Halfway though this complex, driven ‘double story’, there is a theatrical rift between novelist Ruth and her environment-artist Oliver about the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl Nao she had found, washed up near their house on a remote island coast in British Columbia.
In their purposely slow read, over some time, of the compelling diary, they had come to a point where the urge to find out whether the girl died in the 2011 tsunami or committed suicide, as she constantly threatened, had forced their own relationship to a flash point.
Oliver defuses the situation be reminding Ruth that what they had been reading was ten years old. A decade had passed since Nao’s passionate private reports on pages inserted under cover of Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).
The penny dropped: the urgency that they had experienced to ‘save’ or find the troubled teenager had been overtaken by the reality of history. Time had become an impossible deal, the moment of life and death paradoxical.
At this point the deliciously poetic title of this remarkable, ground-breaking and beautiful novel is driven to a climax. The dense and yet clearly conveyed philosophy of perception and experience of time is nailed down in superbly exposed human emotion and real passion.
Author Ruth Ozeki, shortlisted for Man Booker Prize for this, her third novel, had set the intrigue from the start. “My name is Nao, and I am a time being… someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
Those opening lines of the diary set an ambiguous trap for the reader, into which we happily fall.
As does the fictional Ruth, because as a novelist, she had been struggling with a memoir. Her ‘writer’s block’ – and subsequent tension with her easy-going partner – is contrasted with the blabbermouth writing of the young, outspoken, clever, girl. (Exquisite writing by Ozeki makes this first-person voice memorably vivid.)
This establishes also the format of the novel. Alternative chapters tell the two stories as they unfold in two historic time zones, places and communities. With this Ozeki sets a nifty rhythm for the reader.
Nao sets out to tell the life story of her 104-year-old anarchist feminist Buddhist nun great-grandmother Jiko. Yet the diary entries in purple ink relate her own sad life.
Displaced in Japanese society after her early childhood in the USA, she writes candidly about the bullying at school, the humiliation, sex and her dysfunctional parents. Shreds of youthful, tragi-comic humour shines though as, after her father’s second failed suicide attempt, she complains that if he is going to do something, he should at least follow through with it.
Her exploration of Buddhism exposes mature intelligence. She discovers that zazen meditation is to “enter time completely”. She responds to Jiko and admires her great-uncle Haruki, who was forced to become a kamikaze pilot and wrote a secret diary in French.
As Ruth reads this on the other side of the world, her life too moves towards clarity – a kind of spiritual understanding of herself as writer. A planned memoir had been stuck for years, as if life simply wouldn’t get on.
The cunning narrative that Ozeki constructs – and it is truly a most readable story with colourful characters, vivid settings and dramatic turns – evolves gently to meditation of the meaning of time. And, ultimately, the significant, private experience of life.
Death is the counter part, the defining moment, the instant history stops: old people dying (Nao’s beloved great-grandmother the Buddhist nun Jiko and Ruth’s mother), persons threatening to commit suicide (both Nao and her hapless father), or having to commit suicide (her great uncle, a kamikaze pilot in the war).
Ozeki is not shy to spread the simulacra and symbols of time around: a war-time watch rewound after many years, faded diaries and old letters, sea currents that take years to move, a nun endlessly old, the change of seasons, and plenty of quotes from Buddhist sages and poets.
Naturally this points to the nature of writing itself. The diary and memoir as report. The novel as a construct of both writer and reader in time. (There is a dynamic ‘magical realist’ moment of reader panic when Ruth discovers or dreams that the rest of Nao’s diary contains only blank pages, hence no conclusion to her story.)
It is all marvellously evocative – and purposefully complex to hook the reader to the arguments. It’s a superb read.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2013.