The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic is a smallish book, and so I slipped it into my bag one day, expecting to read it on the train in one sitting, and be done with it. No sort of anticipation whatsoever. I thought it would be be similar – in both tone and theme – to every other migrant experience story out there.

To me, it seems to be the case that these sorts of books never stray far from the same generic themes: cultural divide within migrant families, usually between the first-generation children, and the second generation parents; identity crises, the hardships of their new homes (see previous thoughts on this here).

It’s not that I’m insensitive to these sorts of struggles, being a second-generation Korean Australian myself. It just seems as though writers never strive to depict the migrant experience in a fresh, engaging way.

I therefore found myself being first pleasantly surprised, then rather blown away, by Otsuka’s unusual but powerful narrative technique. What’s unusual about The Buddha in the Attic is that the entire novella (I hesitate to call it a novel, because it is so slim) is narrated in a collective – i.e. plural – first person voice, which represents the voice of Japanese war brides sometime prior to the second World War.

Initially, I found the approach gimmicky, and I wondered whether it would be a prologue to stories told by each of the women. Young, fresh-faced, naive Japanese girls, I should say, rather – sailing across the oceans with nothing but photos of their betrothed and heads full of dreams and hopes. In any case, the entire novel turned out to be narrated in the same fashion.

The obvious strength of this sort of storytelling was that there was no single narrator, and I found myself imagining not just a single woman, but  the lives and fates of all early Japanese migrant women in America, which I suppose was been the intended effect. A downside was that the story felt extremely fragmented. Describing this novella as having a concrete plot would be a bit of a far stretch, seeing as it’s comprised mostly of small anecdotes and fleeting glimpses of their lives.

Upon arrival, the women are crestfallen to discover that their husbands-to-be are jaded, weather-worn old bachelor farmers. The photos date back to two decades ago, when they were still fresh-faced young boys hopeful of a new future in America – and the romantic love letters are nothing but lies woven together by conniving matchmakers.

Otsuka takes us through the usual stuff of migrant misery memoirs – lost lovers, unhappy marriages, pregnancies and births and abortions and miscarriages, cultural misunderstandings, early setters’ lives, embarrassing parents and rebellious children. But towards the second half of the novella, there are glimpses of darker, more sinister things to come:

I’m referring, of course, to the lead-up to the second World War and the Japanese internment camps. She tells a story of collective blind-eye, where an entire nation of non-Japanese Americans quietly resume their lives despite the sudden, mass disappearance of neighbours and schoolchildren and corner shop owners and launders. Of entire families and communities, in fact.

A powerful piece of writing, at times gimmicky and contrived, as I mentioned previously – but it doesn’t detract from the story itself, which is a poignant and moving one of both one woman, and an entire generation of Japanese migrant wives, mothers and daughters.


16 thoughts on “The Buddha in the Attic

  1. Mm.. I had never heard of this book nor this writer before. Like you, I’m leery of “some” immigrant writing, if they’re done poorly, meaning, recycled. On the other hand, when I like a writer’s style I would gladly read them. I went over to look at your post on Unaccustomed Earth and was looking through the comments.

    Two coincidences. One: I mentioned Lahiri’s The Namesake. The reason why I really liked that book was that it dwells on not just the immigrant experience but on the Russian novels. Nothing scholarly, but they’re a part of the novel’s framework. The protagonist’s first name is Gogol, can you imagine not enjoying a novel with a hero by that name? Ready to crack open Dead Souls in a few days!

    Second coincidence. I wrote and put my post up on Oe’s Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, and immediately after I did I found your comment. Funny. You’ll know why after you’ve read my post. :D

    1. I am so lazy. I still haven’t read The Namesake (though I have to say, I was really severely turned off Lahiri after Unaccustomed Earth). And same, I’m really excited about Dead Souls – it’s been hard resisting both that and Bulgakov these last few weeks.
      Dracula has kind of lost steam for me after the second half… It’s not ‘fantasticccccc’ anymore. Just, okay.

      And har har har @ the Oe thing. I love the Paris Review Interviews, they are simply amazing, the way they give us invaluable insights into writers’ lives and thoughts :)

      1. The Paris Review interviews are awesome. I had been coveting their books but never actually got one. Were you able to purchase copies of those? Not sure if I remember right. I need to get those books maybe next year.

        No worries about The Namesake, to me it was like your Dracula experience. The beginning was exciting (probably because of all the reference to the Russian greats), but dwindled towards the end. I had read the Interpreter of Maladies now, but I don’t remember much from my experience of it. I only know that she wrote well, but that I infinitely enjoyed The Namesake over it. A lot more.

        Sorry to hear about Dracula. Maybe then I’ll push it back towards the end of the wishlist? I’m thinking next year of doing this project of reading several books by a few selected authors, focus on each one at a certain period of time, maybe a month or two or three per author.

        Btw, I just remembered today that I have another Dostoyevsky on the shelf, Notes from a Dead House. (Newer title: The House of the Dead.) I might try to sneak that in, if time allows, next month for Russian Reading month. I’m tempted to reread Brothers Karamazov with you haha, but I know I won’t be able to do it unless I forego The Idiot.

      2. P.S. My translation of The Idiot is by Constance Garnett. I don’t know if this is wise but I’ve had it for years. Which translation of Karamazov are you reading? I read that in Pevear and Volokhonsky.

        1. If you’ve read Woman in White, it’s just like that. Opens with a bang, sort of loses steam and finishes with a whimper. I’m not 100% sure, but I think Dracula may have been serialized originally as well, which is where the commonality lies (rather than in the genre itself).
          Having said that, I do think it’s worth reading simply because it’s been so influential in literature/popular culture.

          Hahah Claire! I think we’re both in danger of overexerting ourselves again. It’s just a matter of time until we kill our blogs off again from the pressure… I almost put down Doctor Zhivago and The Idiot for this as well, but then I remembered I still have to read Wolf Hall and Norwegian Wood :(

          What say you to a mini-readathon style thing during Russian Reading Month so that we can fit in some more shorter works? Maybe 12 hours, if 24 is too exhausting?

          I’m reading my library’s copy of Karamazov, which is the Penguin edition translated by David McDuff (who I’ve never heard of) lol. Penguin always seems to use such obscure translators, but I’ve never really had a problem with it. Enjoyed their W&P after all. My copy of Dead Souls is Constance Garnett though, who I actually really like!

          1. Ok! I’m glad you like Constance Garnett. I just remembered I have a copy of Dr Zhivago hahahaha. Maybe I’ll put rereading off and just read those yet unread. Ok, you know what, I’ll read 3. Dead Souls, The Idiot, and Dr Zhivago. Hahahaha. Please please let not this burn our blogs out!

            A mini readathon sounds like a great idea! I wouldn’t be able to do 24 hours without distractions. I just realized again with the last readathon that I don’t even get to read half of the time. What about more than one mini readathon? Say, once a week for the whole month, and maybe 5 or 6 hours per readathon? No breaks longer than 30 minutes allowed! Hahahaha.

            1. Oooh sounds intense but definitely more effective! (I really need my sleep so 24 hours is impossible for me haha). Maybe spread them out over the whole month though? Hmmm…

            2. And yes. Now I really want to read Doctor Zhivago instead of Karamazov. Which translation is your Zhivago? I’m afraid to get the P&V, because that’s the one that’s said to be so terrible (though apparently their other work is fantastic)… but I don’t remember seeing another recent English translation?

              1. Yup, that’s exactly what I meant! Spread it out the whole month instead of just one. So once per week, which is 4 times over the month, 5 hours per week, for a total of 20 hours? On second thought, I’m terrible at keeping schedules, so why don’t we just skip that and just give ourselves mini-readathons by ourselves spontaneously over the month, without having to appoint a scheduled time for it?

                I checked just now and my Dr Zhivago is the P&V! Oh no! But.. but.. the cover is so pretty!

                1. I know!! The cover is so pretty that it’s still on my Book Depository wishlist, despite it being so terrible….
                  And true, we’re so bad at schedules, let’s just leave it as it is haha

              2. I read reviews of the translations now. I wish I had the old translation. But oh well. We’ll see if I will allow myself to get an extra copy. If not, I’ll just have to trudge through P&V.. what were they thinking??

  2. I found this book to be a fresh take on the immigration experience (of which I have none). I especially enjoyed the collective narrative voice she used. Your photographs added a wonderful touch to this post! (And now you have met the requirement for the Japanese Literature Challenge 6.)

      1. Nope, it’s not over until January 30, 2013. And then, in June, it comes around again for the JLC7. :)

        I’ll never want it to end. I may not read as much for it as I’d like, but that gives me an excuse to continue hosting it year after year after year…

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