Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (2011)

I listened to this short book / long novella during summer, and at first the form unsettled me. I was thrown aside by the repetition, the anonymity of the collective narrator (“we” is a very peculiar, little-used point of view in novels, isn’t it?), the poetic rhythm. I thought it was a kind of beautiful prologue before a more traditional story would focus on one character in particular. But it never came. It hadn’t really occur to me that a whole book could be structured like that, a bit like an ancient chant.

Then I got used to it and learnt to enjoy it, in part thanks to the French audiobook’s voice, actress Irene Jacob, whom you might know from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s movies “The Double Life of Véronique” and “Three Colors: Red” back in the 1990s.

Some people might find this kind of writing too repetitive, lacking a true plot or character development. Some might even call it a literary trick to weave all kinds of bits and pieces together in an artificially coherent unity. I can understand their reservations, but to me it worked.

The French title is “Some had never seen the sea”, and it really changes the focus of the story and makes me judge the book under a different light. With the French title, the focus was on the collective experience of the Japanese brides, who arrived in California after World War I to marry Japanese men they had never met.

Young and inexperienced, they’d imagined their married life based on what they’d known in Japan, or under better circumstances in the land of the American dream, not ready for the culture shock and the deceit that they were victims of. Most men were not as young and wealthy as their letters had described, and they were in for a life of harsh labor in the U.S. The writer describes vignettes of their new lives in their diversity, but the common experience is years of toil: cleaning for wealthy families, washing laundry, picking fruits, becoming prostitutes, seeing all kind of hardships and racism before getting more or less acclimatized to their new family and country.

But after a generation, once they have given birth to children who are growing up more American than Japanese and often despise their mothers for their foreign manners, they get a huge backlash when they are seen with suspicion and called “traitors” and sent away in camps during World War 2.

The English title, “The Buddha in the Attic” actually shifts the focus of the whole book to its latter part, when the narrator voice, the “we” abruptly (yet imperceptibly, as I was listening to an audiobook and therefore unable to pinpoint the exact place) shifts from the Japanese women’s voice, to that of the Americans who are left behind. The last section portrays a California empty of Japanese, briefly wondering where they disappeared before getting on with its routine, with very few remnants that they ever lived there.

I understand the struggle of the writer at that point, because following the Japanese women to the internment camp would have broken the unity of place (California) that is very important in the book, and would have made for a wholly different story. Yet I wasn’t very comfortable with that latter part, because I thought that the voice lost a bit of focus and balance anyway.

Despite this slight reservation, I quite enjoyed the book, especially as I knew little about Japanese-American heritage. It may be read as a tribute to this particular community, but from a European point of view it can also be read as a collective memoir for many female immigrants.

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4 thoughts on “Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (2011)

  1. Sounds interesting, especially since earlier this year I listened to “How to Be an American Housewife” by Margaret Dilloway. It’s a little different, as it’s about a Japanese woman who marries an American and comes here after WWII, but some of the themes (adjusting to the new culture, American children, etc.) are probably similar.

  2. I’ve heard good things about this book. I didn’t know about the “we” point of view though. How interesting! That little detail just might tip me into reading it sometime.

  3. Pingback: Reading Notes: James Ellroy’s Perfidia (2013) | Smithereens

  4. Pingback: The one that added beauty to the darkest hours | Smithereens

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