The Buddha in the Attic/Julie Otsuka: Reflections

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene has now become a pelting force.  I have been reading Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic in its dark and fearsome shadow.  I'm not entirely sure how long I will have power, and there is much I'd like to say.  But for now, and briefly, I want to share this with those of you in the still-electrified regions of our country:  Julie Otsuka (the author of the contemporary classic (and one of my favorite books) When the Emperor was Divine) writes important books.  Deeply penetrating, remarkably researched, wholly intimate miniature novels that aren't novels at all, perhaps, but something else—urgent evocations, perhaps, or searing incantations.

Otsuka's focus, in Buddha, is on the young Japanese women who arrived by boat shortly after World War I to meet the men they had agreed to marry and to begin lives that would never be the lives that they'd imagined.  They are taken, many of them roughly, to bed.  They are put to work in farms or in the houses of the rich.  They bear children and they lose children and they have favorites among their children, and their children will grow up with an American sound and smell, with attitude and shame.  When the next war begins, these lives will be savaged once again by the American paranoia that led to the building of the Japanese intern camps.

I keep saying "they" and "these" because this is a story told in the third-person plural.  A we came, we did, we loved, we lost, we hoped, we were taken from tale. That may sound like a peculiar story-telling choice, and indeed, it does, in places, box Otsuka in, forcing a sameness of sentence superstructure, as well as a sameness of variation from that superstructure.  "On the boat we were mostly virgins," she begins, continuing: 
We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall.  Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.
Can you sustain a book with a third-person plural?  Can you make it matter?  In this slender book, Otsuka does by offering a suite of detail-saturated, devastating chapters with titles like "Come, Japanese!," "First Night," "Whites," "Babies," and "Traitors."  Only the last chapter, "A Disappearance," gives voice to the Americans who wonder, in the wake of the Japanese evictions, where their neighbors, school mates, grocery store clerks, maids have gone. 

The rain is a sleeting as I type this.  The news warns of apocalyptic floods, of communities remade, of evacuations; it tells of children already lost to the thunder crash of trees.  I read Buddha against this backdrop.  I was moved toward a deep sadness for lives long ago lost. 


Majid Ali said...
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Mandy said...

I hope you're doing okay up there! At least you're surrounded by all kinds of great books...and hopefully your iPad was charged up. :)

Lilian Nattel said...

That's an intriguing choice--the plural narration. I'd like to read that.

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