TagJulie Otsuka

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 10-6

Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.

You can also catch up on previous instalments of this project here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11.

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Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (2011)

The narrator of Julie Otsuka’s second novel is a chorus: the disembodied ‘we’ of a cohort of Japanese women who travel to the United States at the start of the twentieth century as picture brides; the book follows them from their initial sea voyage through to their being sent away to internment during the Second World War. A quotation from the first chapter illustrates Otsuka’s general approach:

On the boat we carried our husbands’ pictures in tiny oval lockets that hung on long chains from our necks. We carried them in silk purses and old tea tins and red lacquer boxes and in the thick brown envelopes from America in which they had originally been sent. We carried them in the sleeves of our kimonos, which we touched often, just to make sure they were still there.

This is the language of The Buddha in the Attic: individual details and experiences, blended and distilled into a rhythmic composite. That quotation also hints at the hope which their husbands-to-be and journey to America represent to these women – a hope soon tarnished when they discover that the photographs they were given are twenty years old, and that their new husbands are not the well-off professionals which the women were led to believe, but farm-workers and servants. This is the first example in the novel of the American dream not living up to its promise for the women.

Once their new lives in America begin, the women’s experiences are varied, but most find themselves marginalised or ignored. This is where Otsuka’s main technique comes into its own, as the author creates a broad, sweeping portrait of many lives which can at once move out to reveal common themes and move in to focus on individuals.

When the women come to have children, The Buddha in the Attic gains a new layer in the ways that the new generation’s lives reflect and differ from those of their mothers. Where the women once imagined whatAmerica might be like, now their children have notions of the outside world based on hearsay, which may or may not be accurate (“Beyond the farm, they’d heard, wherever you went you were always a stranger and if you got on the wrong bus by mistake you might never find your way home”). As life goes on, some of the children get a taste of the American dream which was denied their mothers – but not necessarily as the women may have wished, because the children tend to reject or forget their Japanese names and traditions.

Life turns again with the advent of Pearl Harbor, as the women now find themselves and their families regarded with suspicion. Hearsay returns again in the form of a ‘list’ of people to be taken away, about which nothing is known for sure (including whether or not it actually exists), but much supposed. Otsuka builds tension effectively in this section, as the details which have so far formed the basis of the women’s experiences give way to questions and rumours.

Otsuka’s first-person-plural narrative voice may speak for all the women at once, but, to an extent, it also speaks for none of them, as we hear no direct individual testimony. There are occasional references to characters by name throughout the novel, but it’s not until towards the end that we get to perceive them as individuals en masse, as it were – but, by then, the Japanese are leaving their communities, and soon all that will remain of them are vague memories, and the odd physical trace like the brass Buddha which one woman leaves behind. The voice of the chorus falls silent, but the music of Otsuka’s writing rings on beyond the final page.

Three Pieces: Granta 117 – Horror

Today, I’m trying out a different approach to blogging about an anthology, by concentrating on three particular pieces from it. The anthology in question is the Autumn 2011 issue of Granta, whose theme is ‘Horror’. It was my first time reading all three of these authors; I’ll go through their work in the order in which it appears in the anthology.

Will Self, ‘False Blood’

This is an account of how Self was diagnosed with and treated for polycythemia vera, a condition which causes the blood to thicken through the overproduction of red blood cells. It’s a very frank piece: Self writes matter-of-factly about his past of drug-use – neither apologising not seeking to justify it, but simply treating it as something that happened – and how it left him afraid of needles, which made his treatment (by having excess blood extracted) all the more difficult.

The horror of ‘False Blood’ seems to me to lie less in the mechanics of Self’s illness and treatment (though there is certainly some of that, and you may well find yourself picturing the blood flowing – or otherwise – through your own veins) than in something more existential. Self reflects on death and disease, and how we dress them up in metaphors in the vain hope of making them more palatable – and comes to the conclusion that it’s better to confront those phenomena without metaphors. But Self acknowledges that disease has been one of the key metaphors he has deployed in his fiction.

So, just as the very blood-flow which sustains Self’s life is now threatening it, so a cornerstone of his life’s work has gained a chillingly personal resonance. Perhaps the true horror of this piece comes from the thought of being betrayed by the most familiar and trusted of things.

Rajesh Parameswaran, ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’

A tiger wakes up one day (“the worst and most amazing day of my life,” p. 167) and realises that he feels love – the love that comes from a deep friendship – for his keeper, Kitch. But where is Kitch today? Ming is getting hungry and wants to see his keeper and friend. When Kitch finally arrives, he’s with another, rather nervous, member of zoo staff; the tiger’s friendly move towards Kitch scares the other man, so Kitch strikes Ming with his stick – and then it all goes wrong.

When I started reading ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’, I thought Parameswaran’s decision to give the tiger such a fluent, human-like narrative voice was amusing but perhaps misjudged – surely that wasn’t how an animal would really think? But now I see that the voice was judged perfectly, because the affect of the story is founded on the tension between the measured, reasonable tone of the narration, and the way Ming’s animal instincts intrude upon it. It’s not just that the tiger tends to misinterpret the human characters’ behaviour; it’s also that the way he reacts and explains himself can be at odds (sometimes chillingly so) with what his voice lulls us into expecting. This story is extracted from Parameswaran’s forthcoming collection, I Am an Executioner, to which I now look forward eagerly.

Julie Otsuka, ‘Diem Perdidi’

Diem perdidi is Latin for “I have lost the day”, which sums up what has happened to the woman with dementia who is at the heart of this story. The text consists mainly of declarative statements about what the woman does and doesn’t remember (sometimes addressed directly to the woman’s daughter – though neither character is ever named). With what might seem to be a rather restricted palette, Otsuka paints vividly what has passed in the lives of the woman and her family; and what is now being lost, the little cruelties of (and those caused by) being able to remember the relatively distant past, and long-held routines, but not what happened a few minutes before. Otsuka’s prose is dotted with poignant turns of phrase, such as: “She remembers that today is Sunday, which six days out of seven is not true” (p. 252). Clearly another writer whom I need to read further.

Elsewhere
Granta magazine
Author websites: Will Self; Julie Otsuka.
Read an abridged version of ‘False Blood’ on the Guardian website.
Additional content on the Granta site.

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