temps perdu & retrouvé

Yesterday I went to my usual book store to buy a copy of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I’d been reading a copy I borrowed from the library, but, having finished reading it on Saturday night, I felt strongly compelled to buy my own copy because I just knew I needed this book in my own collection.

Sadly, there was nothing but an empty space on the shelf where it might have been, and I left the store empty-handed.

Perhaps it was not meant to be… or perhaps I’ll just go search through other book stores until I find it. Maybe I’ll never re-read it in its entirety, but I feel like there are parts that I’ll most probably like to revisit at some point in my life. If nothing else, I feel like it’ll be comforting to have a copy of my own, easily accessible in my home. Sort of like a salve in a literary first aid kit.

Anyway, as you probably gathered from the above paragraphs, and possibly also from other posts in which I’ve mentioned A Tale for the Time Being, I really, really like this book.

I still remember that it was one of the pharmacists at work who first recommended it to me. It was back when I was reading my first Murakami novel (Kafka on the Shore), and SG suggested that if I wanted to read other interesting books by other Japanese authors, I should try Ozeki. At the time, I gratefully accepted the recommendation (I think partly because I’d also seen/heard things about ATTB and was vaguely interested in reading it anyway). I’m going to use this as proof that I do value book recommendations from others (particularly those who I consider to have good taste in books) – it’s just that I might take several years to get around to them…

Whenever I write these “reviews” here, I kind of feel like I should include a brief summary about the story, but I also feel like I shouldn’t have to because you can just google that stuff anyway. But, in case you’re lazy, ATTB is basically about a Japanese girl, Naoko (or Nao for short) who grew up mostly in the US. We join her after her family is forced to move back to Japan, after her father lost his job; and she has to complete middle school (?) in Japan. She’s about 16, and her parts of the story are set out like diary/journal entries that also encompass details about her past and various thoughts she has. Actually, it’s more like an elaborately long letter she’s writing to an as-yet unknown reader.

Alternating with Nao’s diary/letter/recount things is Ruth’s story. This could very well be the first time I’ve ever read a novel where one of the main characters has the same name as the author. I don’t think a lot of authors name characters after themselves, but, as it turns out, Ruth in the story is very similar to Ruth the author. This I found out from a discussion on GoodReads. Of course, I had to have suspected this, but it’s good to have it kind of confirmed.

One day, Ruth discovers Nao’s diary/letter washed up on a beach near where she lives (on an island somewhere on the western side of Canada), and begins reading it. So, essentially, you have Nao’s story unfolding while Ruth’s story unfolds around it.

By now, I know that it’s not unusual for novels to have alternating characters / perspectives / timelines / whatever with each chapter/section. But I still think it’s an amazingly intricate way to construct a story, and one which probably takes a lot of planning and skill. Sometimes it adds more depth; sometimes it feels good to have the respective stories broken up a little. It worked well in ATTB for both purposes.

ATTB was generally really well written, but that’s not the main reason I liked it so much. Of course it was the content that got me. I do wonder, however, if I would’ve liked it as much if I didn’t already have an interest in, and some understanding of Japanese culture, language, mentality, etc. Perhaps it just made it easier to get so completely drawn into the story.

As mentioned in a previous post, ATTB does deal a lot with suicide, but there’s a lot more to it. There’s also a lot about bullying (“ijime”), prostitution, Zen, quantum physics (of all things!), history, friendships, dementia, philosophy, the internet, etc, etc. There seems to be something spiritual and deeply meaningful about the book. Ozeki herself is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest (that’s what the mini-bio within the covers says).

Just randomly, I also appreciated all the little footnotes that helped explain various things (mostly translations of Japanese phrases throughout Nao’s chapters). At first, I was sort of thinking, “oh great, I’m going to be continuously interrupted by having to read these little footnotes”; but actually there aren’t that many, and at least it’s a lot easier than books that have extensive appendices for extra notes, and you have to keep flipping between the front and back of the book. The notes were also quite fascinating. The whole book was fascinating.

Speaking of appendices, ATTB also has appendices – sort of for further reading/explanation. These were interesting too. And Ozeki included a bibliography. I appreciate that. In a sense, it’s like a “suggested further reading”. Perhaps I’ll get around to reading a few of the books on the list …one day.

And, of course, possibly the biggest theme throughout the novel, and possibly the thing holding everything together, was time.

Time lost, spent, found, regained… Floating, drifting, flying… moving through time… Within time, or without…

But I’m not sure how to write about time without making this post three times as long as it already is. Also, I’m not really sure where to start. Where does time start?

Perhaps now, nearing the end of this post, without so much as an allusion to anything French, you’re wondering why the title of this post is in French when the novel is primarily about Japan. “Temps perdu” is “time lost”, and “temps retrouvé” is “time regained”. Without giving too much away, the former relates to Nao’s original diary; and the latter relates to her renewed attempt to record her great grandmother Jiko’s life story. (And, yes, there is French in the novel.)

I kind of wish Jiko was a real person, and that someone actually did record her life story so that I could read it. But I don’t want to ask for a sequel or a spin-off. A Tale for the Time Being is perfect on its own.

2 thoughts on “temps perdu & retrouvé

  1. You’ve intrigued me enough to put this on reserve from my local library. I sometimes have trouble with alternating narrators (I develop an allegiance or fondness for one and resent going to the other) but I will try this one.

    • Hmm.. yeah, I suppose I also tend to prefer one narrator/story over the other, but never significantly enough to affect the reading experience.
      Hope you enjoy A Tale for the Time Being!

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