Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic

Posted by Kurt

This lyrical, elegant, potent book is a completely worthy follow-up to Otsuka’s first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, and may be even more emotionally powerful.  It is not exactly a novel in the traditional sense, as there is no plot, simply a montage of images and simple observations about the experience of Japanese women who came to California before World War II as brides for men they had never met  The images flow like a dream that gets quietly more nightmarish until the horrifying and inevitable end at the time of the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942.  The chapters are loosely bound by topic (the journey by sea, shared experiences of childbirth, details from the day that the Japanese Americans leave their homes, etc.) and mostly told in the first person plural.  This narrative decision is beautiful, churning up history out of a collective experience, presenting contradictions without apology (something like, “We came from X background, and it made us like this.  We came from Y background, and it made us like this,” creates delicate tensions that make the story both communal and individual, and I love it).

Since observations within a chapter are grouped by topic and not by chronological moment, most of the book feels timeless and universal, even while it firmly braces itself in the two or three decades before the internment.  The reader experiences something epic and intimate, and then Otsuka subtly shifts gears to achieve something new.  The last chapters develop a narrative thread that has been more subtle in the first half of the book.  A chapter deals with our generally nameless narrators adapting to increasing anti-Japanese sentiment in their communities, and it’s the kind of thing that is so real and specific (a woman’s laundry is burned on the clothesline) that I felt the kind of creeping dread I usually only associate with ghost stories.  Then a chapter presents an unbroken paragraph with a symphony of details about how individuals left their homes on their last day (a little boy who leaves on roller skates, a little boy who still hears his dog howling as it is left behind, a woman who leaves in a fur coat, a woman who leaves in all she has), and it is heartbreaking and damning simply by celebrating the humanity of these victims of their neighbors’ fear.  The final chapter shifts perspective, using the first person plural not to represent the Japanese women but to represent their neighbors reacting to life after the community has disappeared.  It is gut-wrenchingly effective, especially as it marks the first appearance of the present tense to more forcefully make the reader identify with the characters in their weak excuses and impotent sentiments.  I finished the book feeling drained and wrecked by a book of less than 150 pages.  Otsuka is a master, and everyone should read this book.

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