A Tale for the Time Being

Thursday, 16 January 2014

A Tale for the Time BeingRuth Ozeki’s mysterious novel was a short list contender for the 2013 Booker Prize. The other 2013 contender I’ve read was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, which only made the long list. I was particularly interested in that one because of its connections with the first Trans-Atlantic flight, something which has always fascinated me, as you’ll see on this KLM iFly Maagazine video.

A Tale for the Time Being centres on the west coast of Canada (Desolation Sound), Tokyo and a temple six hours from the Japanese capital. Kicking off with a mysterious package washing up on the beach the book jumps back and forth between Silicon Valley, maid cafes in Tokyo, Love Hotels, assorted patches of wilderness in Canada, brings in cats (including Schrodinger’s very particular feline), wolves, raccoons, crows, kamikaze pilots, suicide, lots of Google searches, a great number of Japanese footnotes and … well it’s a complex book. I was glad to see Moby Duck, one of my favourite travel books in recent years, featured on Ozeki’s reading list.

The really confronting parts of the book – for me – were the amazing descriptions of Japanese school bullying, ijime is the word. School bullies are a problem all over the developed world, but the Japanese seem to take it to incredible heights. When the whole class works on bullying one victim and the teacher joins in as well it has to be somewhat weird. ‘Baroque’ one review described it. Plus, it would appear, this is nothing new, Haruki 1, the book’s kamikaze pilot, suffered exactly the same ritualized assaults during his suicide mission training.

My visit to Balalae Island in the Solomon Islands, while I was working on my recent book Dark Lands, bumped into another dark side of the Japanese story. Richard Flanagan’ s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is on my current reading list and I don’t think Japan is going to come out of that one very well either.