Posted by: Corri van de Stege | April 14, 2014

A tale for the time being, by Ruth Ozeki

In ‘A tale for the Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki a Japanese girl Nao (pr. as ‘now’) writes in her diary:

If you’ve ever tried to keep a diary then you’ll know that the problem about trying to write about he past really starts in the present: no matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the ‘then’ and you can never catch up to what’s happening ‘now’, which means that ‘now’ is pretty much doomed to extinction. Not that ‘now’ is all that interesting. Now is usually just me sitting…… moving a pen back and forth…. trying to catch up with myself”

I had to smile when I read this, having just finished the final edit of my forthcoming book on the time I spent in Isfahan. This book of mine is based on diaries I kept during the Iranian revolution between 1977 and 1980. Writing in the present tense, as I do in that book, has the same problem as that which Nao is writing about, the now is forever slipping away, the now is my sitting here behind my laptop forever trying to keep up with my keyboard.

There are specific problems with writing in the present tense. Your character often has to refer back to something that happened in the past and it’s then easy to slip and continue your ‘now’ in the past. This is even more complicated when you transcribe sections from a diary that you wrote so many years ago, as I do in my book Half the World.

I like this book by Ruth Ozeki which consists of three stories, one about the Ruth who lives on an island in British Columbia and who finds the diaries of Nao, a Japanese girl, on the beach. The box that contains the diaries also contains a watch, a notebook and a bundle of letters. The diary is written in English, the letters are in Japanese and the notebook is in French. The letters and the notebook are by the same person, Nao’s uncle, who was a suicide bomber at the end of the Second World War. Or was he?

Ruth’s story is in the past tense and she reads Nao’s diary which is intermittently in the present and the past, as diaries usually do. It is nicely done, although the idea that Ruth is taking her time reading the diary in order to take as much time over it as it took Nao to write it, is perhaps a bit far-fetched, but it provides the rhythm of the book with alternate chapters on what Ruth does and thinks and sections of Nao’s diary, interspersed with getting various people to translate the notebook and the letters. Nevertheless, there is also the concept that time is important but is slippery and runs away from you, and Nao says that what it means to be a time being is that she is someone who lives in time.

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Towards the end of the book there is another slightly strange device, the use of Zen and the idea of time being, and the concept of alternate worlds where different actions take place so that outcomes are influenced by those different events, this device is used to help overcome the possibility that one or two of the main characters might have committed suicide. I don’t want to give away the plot, so this probably sounds as incomprehensible as it is when you read that section. However, that is a minor quibble, the rest of the book is very well written, and the stories flow without a hitch to their indefinite conclusion. On the way Ozeki touches on a wealth of ideas,  for example gyres, which are the systems of ocean currents that helped Nao’s box to travel all the way from the East coast of Japan to British Columbia, rare crows, Schrodinger’s cat, Japanese funeral rites, quantum mechanics and various other concepts some of which are further elaborated on in footnotes and appendices.

 

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