The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

February 4, 2013

This National Book Award finalist and PEN/Faulkner Award Winner deserves the accolades it has gotten, particularly because there is so much depth in such a slim volume. Julie Otsuka found the perfect voice and narrative method to convey both the scope and the intimacy of the Japanese-American experience leading up to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The United States Supreme Court decision Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the discriminatory treatment of Japanese-Americans by the U.S. government, ranks with the Dred Scott decision and Plessy v. Ferguson as one of the worst stains on that great institution. Otsuka’s elegant prose and deft use of first person plural narration drives home the human cost of the racially discriminatory military order that led to the rounding up of thousands of Japanese-Americans for no crime other than having Japanese ancestry.

These legal tangents are my own. I am an attorney and hold the Korematsu decision in low regard, as most lawyers do. The book, however, is concerned, first, with the immigrant experience and, only later, the personal toll taken by the suspicions and paranoia directed at United States citizens of Japanese descent during a time of war. The actual Korematsu decision plays no role in the book, but the connections resonated with me, putting flesh and face on those who suffered under the unjust policy and the failure of the Supreme Court, that “weakest branch”, to attempt even to moderate the tide of paranoia sweeping a nation at war.

Enough about Korematsu.

This exceptional novel begins on a boat which is carrying young Japanese women who are coming to America ostensibly to meet husbands, current or anticipated. The narration is not from any particular individual’s point of view, but is told using “we” and “us”. Through Otsuka’s deft writing, however, individuals are not lost but, somehow, magnified using this method.

Several of us on the boat had secrets, which we swore we would keep from our husbands for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the real reason we were sailing to America was to track down a long-lost father who had left the family years before.  He went to Wyoming to work in the coal mines and we never heard from him again.  Or perhaps we were leaving behind a young daughter who had been born to a man whose face we could now barely recall – a traveling storyteller who had spent a week in the village, or a wandering Buddhist priest who had stopped by the house late one night on his way to Mt. Fuji. And even though we know our parents would care for her well –  If you stay here in the village, they had warned us, you will never marry at all – we still felt guilty for having chosen our own life over hers, and on the boat we wept for her every night for many nights in a row and then one morning we woke up and dried our eyes and said, “That’s enough,” and began to think of other things. Which kimono to wear when we landed. How to fix our hair. What to say when we first saw him. Because we were on the boat now, the past was behind us, and there was no going back.

On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.

That last line not only stops this litany of secrets from blurring the varied experiences and individuals into a pitiable but somewhat The Buddha in the Atticamorphous lump, it ties the reader to the heartbreak of a single character with the crushingly evocative image of a young girl “utterly entranced”, as are we, by that lonely corpse.

There is more than sufficient hardship and heartbreak in the book and yet it never becomes maudlin. The characters are mostly optimistic, they have successes and failures. The fragility of life, so poignantly evoked by that dead, floating bee, comes through elsewhere as well and not only with regard to children, but also to matters of romance. These women were, after all, coming to America to join or find husbands:

One of us made the mistake of falling in love with him and still thinks of him night and day. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who beat her with a broomstick and then lay down and wept. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who divorced her and sent her back to her parents in Japan, where she now works in a silk-reeling mill in Nagano for ten hours a day. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who forgave her and then confessed to a few sins of his own. I have a second family up in Colusa. One of us said nothing to anyone and slowly lost her mind. One of us wrote home for advice to her mother, who always knew what to do, but never received a reply.

These little vignettes I’ve excepted show some of the power of Otsuka’s collective narration, but know also that there are longer portions dedicated primarily to individuals. There are recurring characters, all are not as anonymous as you may begin to think from the quotes I have chosen.

Otsuka has managed to do what great fiction does, she shows us the world in a new light, in a way that engages both mind and emotion. The themes manage to be both universal – death, loss, and man’s refusal to succumb willingly to the crushing weight of life — and to be intimately specific – a mother’s last memory of her child: a three year-old by a puddle contemplating death as her mother leaves forever.

The Buddha in the Attic is both an impactful narrative and an exquisite glimpse inside the lives of an entire community under extreme pressures, both internal and external. Otsuka has achieved brilliance. She has also won a fan.