The Man Booker Prize, launched in 1969, aims to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the year’s best novel written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. Sonia Nair delves into one of the shortlisted works of 2013–Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.
A barnacle-encrusted diary, clad in a Marcel Proust book cover and wrapped in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, along with an antique watch engraved with kanji characters and a collection of French letters, are the conduits through which a Canadian-based writer’s life becomes intertwined with that of a young Japanese schoolgirl in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.
Nao is a 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirl who intends to kill herself, but not before she chronicles the life of her 104-year-old grandmother Jiko, ‘the famous anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun’ in a diary that she hopes will find a suitable reader someday. That someone, in a seeming coincidence, turns out to be Japanese-American writer Ruth who lives in a tiny, self-contained settlement in British Columbia, where she finds the diary washed ashore years later in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.
Narrating Jiko’s illustrious life may have been Nao’s primary intention but, as any teenage diary will attest, nothing is so consuming as the challenges of adolescence. Not that Nao is a typical teenager: she grew up in Sunnyvale, California where her father was hailed a Silicon Valley genius until the burst of the Dot-Com bubble sends Nao and her family back to Tokyo without a dollop of savings or self-worth. Known in school as the ‘poor loser foreign kid’, Nao is mercilessly bullied by her classmates who, at different points of the novel, stage a funeral for her and ambush her in the toilet armed with camera phones. Meanwhile, Nao’s father languishes in their shoebox apartment in a depressed stupor and her mother works overtime to support her ruptured family.
Added to the fray are Nao’s grandmother Jiko, who functions as her moral compass throughout the novel, and her deceased uncle, Haruki #1, the kamikaze fighter pilot who holds an important key to Nao’s family’s history. The antique watch and collection of French letters, which accompany Nao’s diary, belong to Haruki #1 and provide crucial insight into the final decision Haruki #1 had to make in his short life as a fighter pilot—one that will help Nao and her father make sense of their disordered lives.
Ruth hails from New York but moved to British Columbia for love, and to provide her mother with a peaceful resting place. Living in a settlement far removed from the daily rigours of civilisation, Ruth struggles with writer’s block and yearns for the hustle and bustle of her former metropolitan life. Many parallels can be drawn between the two disparate worlds of Nao and Ruth, and the novel is as much about Nao trying to find her place in the world as it is about Ruth wondering if the place she’s chosen is the right one.
Time is a fluid construct in A Tale for the Time Being as Ruth is simultaneously fascinated and deeply horrified by Nao’s plight. This sends Ruth on a mission, searching the depths of the internet for concrete proof of Nao’s existence in an effort to save her. The diary itself assumes mythic properties in Ozeki’s tale, as it expands and contracts subject to the whims of Ruth who, to convolute matters further, is an extrapolation of Ozeki herself.
Dark aspects of Japanese culture—suicides of disillusioned ‘salary men’, endemic schoolyard bullying known as ijime, the need for students to attend ‘cram school’, and the fear of failure—feature in the novel. With a heavy focus on Japanese ghost tales, first-person accounts of WW2 kamikaze pilots, tenets of Zen wisdom and quantum physics, as well as the moral dilemmas of the military use of video games and the exploitation of the internet, Ozeki’s novel transcends many layers of time.
Dream-like sequences, reminiscent of the magical realism evoked by heavyweight Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, coalesce with jarring passages, fraught with pain and suffering. Ozeki is at her strongest when conjuring the feelings of despair and powerlessness at the heart of Nao’s tragic reality; she does so with a deftness so sharp readers are left reeling long after the final pages have been turned.
The novel’s philosophical underpinnings, largely enriched by Ozeki’s foundation as a Zen Buddhist priest, raise profound moral questions about the concept of time, the environment, one’s raison d’être (a phrase bandied liberally throughout the novel), life, death and human will. Yet the ruminations never overpower Nao and Ruth’s clear and compelling voices, as the interplay between the two women—and how they eventually come to shape one another’s life—make for an exquisitely emotional, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting novel.