A Tale For The Time Being
Author: Ruth Ozeki
Setting: Japan | British Columbia, Canada
Published by Viking Adult
Literary Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee (2013), Goodreads Choice Nominee for Fiction (2013), The Kitschies for Red Tentacle (Novel) (2013), Paris Review Best of the Best (2013)
“I calm myself by picking up this notebook and trying to shout my pain to the unknown friends who will read these lines.”
When Jean Cocteau, a film maker, encountered problems while filming Beauty and the Best, he found solace by writing to ‘unknown friends’. He was suffering from a skin diseases that was both disfiguring and extremely painful.
In A Tale For The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki, the story starts with Nao Yasutani, a 16-year old girl, writing in her diary inside a French maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town in Japan. Just like Cocteau, Nao writes to an “unknown” time being.
“Who are you and what are you doing?” she asks.
Nao’s diary, enclosed in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, finds its way on the shores of an island off the coast of British Columbia, then eventually in the hands of Ruth, a novelist. As Ruth sets out to unfold the mystery of the diary and the letters that came with it, she finds herself bound to Nao, seeking traces of her and her relatives in the vastness of the Internet. In hopes of solving this puzzle, Ruth discovers not only more of Nao’s life but also her own. Nao’s diary presents itself to Ruth as a sort of invitation to discover, together with Nao, the smallness and vastness of the world- wherein time bears fruits of stories and bonds that transcend the limits of time. As Nao so eagerly wrote, “Together we’ll make magic“.
While she starts off bubbly and excited, Nao relates a sadder side of her life. She starts by describing her life in Tokyo and how it was completely different from their life in Sunnyvale, California where her family used to live. People may find Nao’s narration flippant and even annoying at times, but I find that it is essential that Nao writes this way. It makes her believable. Her writing is simple and honest which made an immediate impact on me. The diary thus serves as a confessional, where she could whisper to another time being her most intimate thoughts.
She describes her feelings of hatred and fear towards her father’s failed suicide attempts. These feelings never reaches her father. Instead, she pours out her troubles in the pages of her diary. Her disappointment was evident when she wrote this:
“The way society is set up, parents are supposed to be the grown-up ones and look after the kids, but a lot of times it’s the other way around.”
It just shows how the actions and decisions of parents and its inevitable consequences can seep its way into the lives of their children. Unfortunately for some, the hurt might not show outwards and parents may never now.
She also relates the brutal and shocking bullying she experiences from her classmates. I may have read a few books that involved bullying but nothing could prepare me for the lurid details of the bullying she endures in school. Truly, the shamelessness and cruelty of human nature manifest in the book, often to my horror, anger and dismay. I can imagine Nao’s dejection. It must be difficult to stay strong. Even more so because she chooses to fight alone as she doesn’t see her parents as mature adults who can help her. It’s hard to make sense of the follies of youth and adults in a world where there is constant pressure to belong and conform to modern ideas and conventions. Which makes me think of those who are currently suffering with depression and feelings of unworthiness – those who find no reason to keep on living or those who think that they are alone. You hope that in one way or another, someone will enter their lives to give them a reason to live. In the end, no matter how miserable Nao or her father may seem, I hoped that they will get a second chance in life. I wanted their hope and faith in life to be redeemed.
Nao doesn’t come across as entirely pitiful. A reader will likely intuit that she has a strong spirit and a sense of humor which won’t be completely dampened by her current situation. Sometimes though, even a strong person can falter. Nao herself has suicidal thoughts, thinking that it is the only means of escape. That is where we see Jiko’s significance in the story come in. Jiko is Nao’s great-grandmother. During summer vacation Nao spends time with her. There, Nao is introduced to the Buddhist way of life- its rituals, beliefs and teachings. Even mundane things are treated with much reverence, much to the amusement of Nao. Jiko provides her with much-needed guidance, companionship and comfort. She encourages Nao to develop her own “supapawa” (superpower). Jiko’s methods are not what I would call ‘conventional inspiration’. Jiko adheres to her methods of riddles and paradoxes, leaving Nao confused at times. Throughout the book, Nao venerates Jiko and her wisdom. Slowly, she motivates herself to see the brighter side of life. Nao writes, “It wouldn’t hurt for me to try to see the world a little more optimistically like she does.”
In one part of the novel, Jiko takes Nao to the beach for a picnic. It is here where Jiko allows Nao to reflect on the existence of waves in the ocean. She told Nao to start beating the waves. Unsure of what the purpose of all of this was, Nao did as she was told until she got tired. She went back to report to Jiko that she had lost the battle between her and the ocean. Jiko then shows her wisdom in the passage below:
“A wave is born from deep conditions of the ocean,” she said. “A person is born from deep conditions of the world. A person pokes up from the world and rolls along like a wave, until it is time to sink down again.”
So what does this say to Nao? Or to us? This, and many other passages are what I would consider part of the novel’s brilliance – inspirational messages open to interpretation; all decided upon by the reader.
The light-hearted moments in the novel also involved Jiko, which does a lot to endear her to me. To be honest, I never thought of Buddhist nuns singing Karaoke. It is a great discovery though and I found myself laughing out loud when Nao related having a good time with Jiko and Muji (another Buddhist nun, Jiko’s companion in the temple) during a Karaoke session inside the temple. While Nao belted out “Material Girl”, Muji sang R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”. It didn’t come out as you would normally pronounce it. Instead, Muji sang it as “I Bereave I Can Fry”. Nao wrote that this cracked her up. It had the same effect on me.
I find Nao as the novel’s “supapawa“. She is the core of the novel, to which we discover a deeper appreciation of the world and life itself. Nao speaks her mind. At times she shows her impudent side which some people might find obnoxious, but most of the time they’re comical.
While I find Nao as the core of the story, I found Haruki #1’s (Nao’s great-uncle) ‘true‘ diary the most compelling. I was granted a different perspective of the horrors of the Second World War in the eyes of Haruki #1. In him, we find a Japanese soldier who finds no sense and no reason to kill the enemy whom he can not hate. Through his diary, we see the struggle of man’s conscience against the senselessness of human acts and in this case, war. We see a reluctantly fighting soldier, whose objections and disdain for the war, as well as his reflections about life finds its way on paper.
If there’s one word to describe me while I was reading this book, it’s “pensive”. There were also times that I found myself pausing frequently to repose my thoughts; perhaps to indulge in the profound ideas presented in the book. Most of the time I am rendered speechless- reading with utmost fascination of the words written on the page. The references to contemporary Japanese culture and the country’s history fascinated me, having been interested in Japanese culture since my early adult life.
The book itself is teeming with information and discussions of pertinent matters that concern our modern times: 9/11, the 2011 tsunami, issues concerning the environment such as garbage accumulation and climate change. The book discussed subjects such as Zen philosophy, the nature of conscience and even quantum mechanics. Ms. Ozeki provided us with a myriad of footnotes and appendices to expound these subjects in the confines of her novel. Many might not appreciate this, perhaps even discounting its addition to the novel. Personally, I find that the novel has a power that transcends its subjects, no matter how complex they may be.
We often find an unlimited number of books that entertain us but we rarely get anything more than that. For me, this is one book that was more than entertaining. In all its simplicity and complexity, it made an indelible impression on me.
Once a reader starts to believe and gets past the hurdles of the weighty subjects presented in A Tale For The Time Being, he/she will find a treasure in his/her hands that will remain for all time.