So here I am, at Fifi’s Lonely Apron, staring at all these blank pages and asking myself why I’m bothering, when suddenly an amazing idea knocks me over. Ready? Here it is:
I will write down everything I know about Jiko’s life in Marcel’s book, and when I’m done, I’ll just leave it somewhere, and you will find it!
How cool is that? It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me!
Ruth Ozeki, in A Tale for the Time Being, sets up an unimaginable relationship between Nao Yasutani and an anticipated reader. Sixteen years old, Nao is sitting in a parody of a French café in Tokyo, with a gutted book whose cover is the only hint that it once contained Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. She has a plan to write her great-grandmother Jiko’s life story, all the while also intending her suicide when the task is done. Yasutani Jiko, “the famous anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun of the Taisho era,” is 104 years old and lives in her temple in Sendai, where the 2011 tsunami struck, sweeping most of the district out to sea.
Across the Pacific, on an island off the British Columbia coast, Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox in the debris along the beach. It is packed with several objects each packed in a freezer bag. She takes out a book, a gutted volume titled À la recherche du temps perdu. And she reads:
Hi!…My name is Nao, and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is?…
Like the gyres¹ weaving across the ocean carrying warm air and debris, the story of Nao and her family link into Ruth’s life on an isolated island where she unintentionally has fallen behind herself. Nao writes with a coy approach-avoidance but slowly, as the muse works its way into her heart, the pain of her losses reveals the currents in her story. Intermittently, Jiko contributes to easing her confusion or mediating the fascinating dialogue between Nao and her reader (Ruth) across time and space. Interpenetrating the narrative are Jiko’s wisdom conveyed through the essence of Dogen’s teachings which Nao takes to heart and which open Ruth to her own.
Nao’s discovery of her family history and its lineage of suffering stops the breath as it unfolds. The assumptions about weakness and strength, anger and sorrow, play out as Nao survives being brutally bullied and learns, with Jiko’s training, to see beyond the humiliation. Nao’s parents flow along a parallel current, dragging their own weighty hopelessness and misunderstandings. Like most teenaged girls, she has little time for their way of being time beings. Yet, her fears are no different from any child: that she might be abandoned by their decisions, that she has been abandoned by their neglect, that she has no refuge because the apartment they inhabit is choked with their collective pain.
Obsessed by the contents of the Hello Kitty lunchbox, Ruth searches for evidence that Nao and her family are real. A novelist herself, she dredges the internet for information, uncovering bit by painful bit what is possible to know. Woven into her search is also a search for refuge, for home, for settling into the time and place she inhabits. Her own losses are covered over by her assumptions and misunderstandings of how relationships express sorrow and hopelessness. As Ruth discovers more about one member of Nao’s family, she begins to understand that satisfaction is not a companion of living to ones values, that the complex process of being true to oneself can exact an enormous price, wittingly or unwittingly.
Ruth Ozeki has crafted a complex story of love. Nao is unflinchingly teenaged, with all the raw wisdom that it embodies and all the rampant passion with which it is expressed. Ruth (the character, though one wonders if there are threads of Ozeki herself, how could there not be) is wonderfully obsessed as a researcher, affronted when her protectiveness is disregarded, aloof in her sorrow, and intimate in her not knowing. Jiko is a solid rock in the winds that tear around her family, a solidity that comes only from profound pain and profound dedication to being alive. Crossing both time and space yet resisting actually anchoring in either requires a master craftsperson and Ozeki doesn’t fail to deliver. On reflection, although the entire book is hinged on the possibility of the tsunami’s role in bridging space, one is left with that ultimate not knowing: is it? There are other plotted moments of not knowing how…who…what?? But ultimately it matters less that the currents are purified than to simply enter the fundamental unknowability of anything.
The beauty of A Tale for the Time Being is that, despite the intricacies, it keeps the reader planted firmly in the moment of reading. And yet when the last page arrives, inevitably, there is an in-breath as if there could be more. And there is…
¹Gyres are rotating ocean currents that move with wind currents.