Thoughts: A Tale For The Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

This isn’t going to be a nuanced piece at all, just to warn you. There won’t be any analysis of technique or meaty musings on style and technique and effect. This is going to be a gush. You have been warned.

I unreservedly loved this book. It was fantastic. I didn’t so much read it as inhale it, and though usually whenever Spuggy asks me about what I’m reading he’s letting himself in for either a long description of the plot which is probably not as funny as I think it is or a verbal first draft of my thoughts. Not so with A Tale For The Time Being. I snapped at him, because mentioning the book only served to remind me that I wasn’t reading it at that very moment.

A Tale For The Time Being fits a lot in but doesn’t feel full, the way the best films can be long but steal the time away from you with the lightest of fingers. It touches on a lot of modern Japanese issues: school bullying, the consequences of various aspects of non-conformity, shame, suicide, compensated dating, ageing populations and the drift from country to city, Buddhism, World War Two, the tsunami… But the premise is quite simple. In Tokyo a schoolgirl writes a diary. On an isolated Canadian island, a novelist reads the diary. Easy.

We get chunks of diary between the story of Ruth the novelist (very meta) reading it, so we get to read it at the same pace and share Ruth’s anticipation. We get the same sense of immediacy, too – in layering the stories like this it erases the time difference between them (both threads are openly dated). Even though I knew Nao’s diary was written years before Ruth found it (and even though I knew it was fiction) I shared Ruth’s worry for Nao’s changing state of wellbeing.

The book contains stories within stories; stories all wrapped up together and overlaid and interlaced through time. Nao’s family histories and Ruth’s memories and the little narratives we make up to make sense of the world. News stories and lost crows and diaries crossing the sea and the way forests have changed and been changed. It’s about reading (or hearing) those stories too, and interpreting them. There’s a great scene where Ruth and her husband Oliver are discussing the things they picked up in the diary that the other didn’t, thus changing the other’s impression (I picked up on what Oliver noticed, but I’m ashamed to say I absolutely didn’t notice what Ruth saw until she said it). It’s a bit more interactive than that though, or at least different to what you might expect from the word “interactive”. It’s a bit quantum, and takes a quantum sort of approach to Zen Buddhism as well as reading.

There’s a bit of magical realism involved, some supernatural edges and a lot of philosophy, but as we all know by now that’s my bread and butter. I don’t want to make it sound twee though – the book can be funny and quiet and gentle, but it has sharp teeth. There are moments of startling brutality. And the suicide thing I mentioned earlier. Different aspects of suicide are a running theme in this book, so if you’re not in the mood then this might not be a good choice for your next read.

Ruth and Nao live separated by time and space, both different ages and from different backgrounds and struggles, but it’s still really cool to see the parallels between them and how they affect each other. Ruth slacks off on her own work as a consequence of reading the diary, but she also finds herself engaging more with the other people on the island, meeting people and learning things and yeah, perhaps her experience of Nao brings her more a little more fully into the ‘now’.

As for Nao, she’s changed as well by her writing, and more specifically by writing for an audience. Sometimes positively – in the beginning she’s excited to ‘make magic’ with her unknown reader – and sometimes negatively – when she’s feeling low, the absence of the unknown reader and feedback affects her mood. The rest, of course, you’ll have to read for yourself.

There’s a lot of wordplay in A Tale For The Time Being, and a lot of fun with language in general, not limited to Nao’s ‘now’ puns or an elegant play on “ruthlessness”. Because Nao is in Japan and speaks Japanese (though she’s writing in English) she uses Japanese terms in her writing for which we get footnotes from Ruth-the-character. At first, because we get the diary’s opening before Ruth’s first section and I had no idea what the story was about, I assumed these were authorial footnotes until I came up against a footnote where the footnote writer was forced to speculate on a term she couldn’t decipher, which changed the whole tone of the diary from artificial third-person construct to earnest first-person creation and discovery. It also flipped Ruth’s discovery of the diary on its head – to Ruth, Nao is the mysterious character known only by her writing, but to us, Ruth plays that part. It sort of messes around with time as well to have the “present” character be introduced as the mysterious one and the “past” one be familiar and open to us.

Another cool note on the language: Nao’s use of Japanese terms goes far beyond what we’ll normally find in a work that’s actually been translated from Japanese, which I find totally interesting. By good luck and timing I’m reading a Japanese book in translation right now and the difference in the language is striking. They’re both set in Japan, but a work written in English for an English audience seems to have freer rein to use Japanese terms and explore Japanese concepts. I say “seems” because of course Japanese works set in Japan are going to be exploring Japanese issues, even if they are phrased in not-necessarily-Japanese ways when translated. I suppose a work written in English has the benefit of being able to explain things very clearly to the reader (Nao and Ruth both explain things in this way) whereas a work intended for a Japanese audience will generally not do this, reducing the space a translator has to do this. Translators are often reduced to quick glosses and asides made to look as unintrusive and natural as possible in the text, as adding great big sentences of explanation is considered treason, and too many footnotes are distracting. A Tale For The Time Being gets away with a decent amount of footnotes because they’re written in character and contribute to the story rather than being merely utilitarian. Ruth (character, author, who knows at this point?) lets herself go off on tangents and teach the reader Japanese etymology and speculate and generally twitch the stage curtain aside a bit to show her working in a way that makes the story feel more real, despite the fact that we might not necessarily accept such things from a real translation or otherwise curated work. I find this really interesting to think about.

Anyway, I don’t want to say too much about the story itself, because I went in blind and loved it. And maybe if you pick it up, the story you read will be slightly different to the one I read…

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