Every year when the MAN Booker prize comes around, I like to take a look at a few of the titles and see if I can predict which book will win. Of course I know I can’t read all of the books as I would never have time (and besides, I can’t afford to buy them all and as yet I have not reached the heady heights of book reviewing to receive review copies. Perhaps if I worked for The Guardian...), so I know I’m only ever going to get a tiny insight. Still it is always interesting to read some contemporary fiction and the Booker list is a reasonably decent filter of the best of the year’s fiction (in the qualifying territories).
My first foray into the longlist is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Firstly it’s worth mentioning that if you’re interested in this book I’d recommend trying to get hold of the UK hardcover edition as it is a thing of beauty. The cover is plain white, textured board with a large red circular sticker in the centre (Japanese flag style) and the book title and author in neat, centralised, title case font. The spine is uncovered leaving the bindings exposed with the name Ozeki and the logo of Canongate books painted on. The endpapers include a picture of a Japanese girl’s face (Nao, I presume) with a dove and the ocean and Nintendo stars and Pikachu all kind of mished together. Anyway, it’s lovely and because the spine is uncovered it opens beautifully which makes it a pleasure to read.
So, onto the story. A Tale for the Time Being begins with a diary written by Nao Yasutani a Japanese teenager brought up in the US who has returned to Japan after her Dad was made redundant. The diary is found by Ruth, a character who uncannily resembles the writer Ruth Ozeki (but who probably doesn’t because, let’s be honest, I don’t know her so wouldn’t have the faintest clue. But let’s say there are details which make it appear that the character of Ruth is the writer Ruth. Same husband, same job, same ethnic origin, same home, etc), as flotsam on the beach and with the diary she also finds a watch, some letters and another diary written in French. Ruth suspects that the package is the first debris to be swept up following the tsunami and this assumption raises some interest from her fellow islanders, and a desire to know more in Ruth.
We then follow both Ruth and Nao’s stories via Ruth’s reading of the diary and her attempts to learn more about Nao and how her package came to wash up on the beach. But there is, as you might have guessed, much more to this story than that. There are many threads to A Tale for the Time Being, but perhaps the most critical is that embodied by the title: an exploration of what it means to be a ‘Time Being’. From the story:
“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
Around this concept of ‘time being’ the story draws in zen Buddhism particularly through the character of Jiko, Nao’s 104 year old great grandmother and zen master Dōgen Zenji, as well as quantum physics, including the concept of Schrodinger’s cat (which is also the name of Ruth and Oliver’s cat, Pesto...I know that doesn’t make sense but in the story it does), Proust and philosophy. It’s a mind bending read, which is worth a slow or repeat reading to take it all in.
The theme of interconnectedness is heavily present in the story. There is a connection between Ruth and Nao. Both are stuck: Ruth who has been unable to finish writing her memoir of her mother’s slow death through Altzheimers, and Nao who has decided to kill herself. Then there is a connection of beings misplaced: Ruth hankers for her life in New York city but, on account of her marriage to Oliver who is a natural artist (makes art with nature) and who could not bear living in the city, she is consigned to live on a backwater island with barely any residents and the thinnest illusion of modern conveniences (but I would say it sounded like something approaching bliss to me). Nao, on the other hand, is a Japanese foreigner, out of place in a country she doesn’t understand and in which she cannot fit in. In school she suffers the most terrible bullying (terrible, terrible. It made me feel very angry) and outside of school things aren’t much better. There is a connection with death, and the loss of a parent. Ruth lost her mother to Alzheimers, and she is trying and failing to write a memoir about this, and she fears, though it is never said outright, that she too will fall in the same path. Nao, on the other hand, is crippled by her father’s suicide attempts and her fear, on in the end choice, that she will follow the same path.
Bullying, and the terrible impact it can play, is another heavily present theme in the book. This largely affects the Yasutani family with Nao herself being subject to awful bullying in school as well as the story of her uncle Haruki #1 who was a suicide bomber in the Japanese army during World War II. Through these stories, Ozeki explores the themes of fear, resilience and forgiveness, with zen Buddhism and Jiko in particular providing Nao with the coping mechanisms she needs to get through what is happening to her. The bullying elements to the story are incredibly emotive, and I found myself becoming angry on many occasions. It adds depth to the story but also makes it, in places, very difficult to read.
Then there is old Jiko. I defy anyone to read this story and not love Jiko. Jiko is the reason Nao is writing her diary, she decides that she must tell the story of Jiko to the world. Jiko is 104 years old, a former radical feminist turned zen Buddhist nun. When Nao arrives in Japan she doesn’t know about her great-grandmother Jiko, but after her parents become concerned about the bullying Nao is sent to the temple where Jiko lives for the summer. Jiko is basically amazing. She is the kind of great-grandmother everybody wants (okay, she’s the kind of great grandmother I would want) and wants to be. When Nao is suffering, when she is struggling to make sense of the terrible world, she texts or talks to Jiko and Jiko’s responses, whilst invariably obtuse, are comforting. Like this, which takes place one day when Nao and Jiko are out at the beach, after Jiko had asked Nao to try and bully a wave:
“Jiko nodded, like she was agreeing with me. ‘Up, down, same thing,’ she said.
It’s a typical Jiko comment, all about pointing to what she calls the not-two nature of existence when I’m just trying to watch some cute guy surfing. I know better than to argue with her, because she always wins, but it’s like a knock-knock joke, where you have to say ‘Who’s there?’ so the other person can tell you the punch line. So I said, ‘No, it’s not the same thing. Not for a surfer.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are right. Not same.’ She adjusted her glasses. ‘Not different either.’
See what I mean?
It is different, Granny. The whole point of surfing is to stand on top of the wave, not underneath it.’
‘Surfer, wave, same thing.’
I don’t know why I bother. ‘That’s just stupid,’ I said. ‘A surfer’s a person. A wave is a wave. How can they be the same?’
Jiko looked out across the ocean to where the water met the sky. ‘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. Up, down. Person, wave.’
She pointed to the steep cliffs along the shoreline. ‘Jiko, mountain, same thing. The mountain is tall and will live a long time. Jiko is small and will not live much longer. That’s all.’
Like I said, this is pretty typical of the kind of conversation you have with my old Jiko. I never completely understand what she’s saying, but I like that she tries to explain it to me anyway. It’s nice of her.’”
A Tale for the Time Being is a beautiful, dense, expressive and intelligent book. There is one point in the book where I actually cried (cried!) and it is so rare that this ever happens but it was so beautiful and poignant and terrible and sad at the same time that I couldn’t help it and I’m tearing up a little just writing about it here. I won’t say what it is, but I bet if you read the book you’ll tear up a little bit too and then you’ll know what I’m talking about.
There is so much depth to this novel. It is not deep in only one or two areas, but in many. The characters are well drawn and very believable, and the book is dense with information and ideas that I could be unpicking it for another 430 pages which would mean that you’d read the book and would know what I mean. Read the book. It covers so many things: memory, conscience, philosophy, nature, conservationism, pollution, tragedy, disease, suicide, guilt, zen Buddhism, love, interconnectedness, the improbability of time, death. Everything. And it is written in such a deceptively light manner that you can take all the dense theory of quantum physics or Heideggian philosophy alongside the manga and love hotels and Hello Kitty and not feel overwhelmed by it. It reminded me, in feel, of the works of Tove Jansson which somehow weave the most powerful ideas in something approaching whimsy, and in so doing it packs a more powerful punch. I finished reading the book yesterday and I’m still reeling. I want to read it again, but I think I should let it rest before I do. And perhaps do a little zazen and think about being a time being, a being in time, being here writing while you are reading which will be in my past and your future and all of those things. See, I have learned something.
A Tale for the Time Being receives a timeless 10 out of 10 Biis.