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The Buddha in the Attic was on my wishlist for sometime. Except that it was almost $10. So I dithered and delayed buying it. And then there is the wonderful Landmark sale - and I found I could buy this book for less than $2. This is also the year I am trying to read more of Japanese fiction. Or at least, that's what I hope to. And like many of my hopes - they are destined to remain just that. A mere hope, a whim on a withering horizon.
Julie Otsuka is more famous for the When the Emperor was Divine. But there is a rare poetry in The Buddha in the Attic. It's narrative style is one of the most unique that I have ever come across. I don't think I have ever read a novel that is narrated by a 'we.' The 'we' here are the voices of hundreds of Japanese women who came over to the U.S. during the Second World War as picture brides. Beginning with their passage on the ship, Otsuka casts a haunting spell with the use of the first person plural. These were voices that seemed to me to be speaking from beyond the grave. The husbands who they had never met, turned out to be nothing like the photographs they were shown in distant villages in Japan. Indeed, the rabble that meets them as they step off is beautifully described:
"the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock… the photographs we had been sent were 20 years old."
And some cities as well. Life in America was not the luxurious escape from farming in Japan. No. They arrived in the U.S., and found that to break their backs working was not an option, but the rule. Some of the Japanese women work in the fields, and some as maids. 'Better than the Chinese,' their mistresses would whisper. Some would have affairs with the white men, and give birth to their babies. Still others would grow to love their husbands. Some would leave America for the shame that awaited them in Japan. And yet most would wait for the final denouement to their lives - the time when the Japanese are ordered to leave their J-Town.
At the end of the novel, I remember pausing to think of the sense of loss that these stories leave you with. There is something heartbreaking about small lives. I have never been fascinated by the heroes and heroines - they are meant to be so. But it's the extraordinariness in ordinary lives that move me. The lives that bear the little smudges and grimaces of life's wrinkles so well - those are the stories worth listening to. And that's what makes these stories - all these Japanese women's stories a treasure.
Verdict : A little treasure. I just said that, I think.