martedì 24 gennaio 2012
The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
Last week, my grandmother called me on the phone to tell me she had just read a review of what seemed to be a truly interesting book. It was the second novel of a Japanese-American writer, Julie Otsuka, and it had just been published here in Italy. I bought it the day before yesterday, read the first half during last night and the rest today, in the dentist's waiting room. I enjoyed every single page, every single word.
The story focuses on a particular aspect of Japanese emigration to the US in the 20's and follows the lives of a group of Japanese women, who were "picture brides",mail-ordered brides who crossed the ocean to reach San Francisco and marry men they had only known from photographs. The author based her novel on accurate historical research and read lots of memoirs and all sort of documents on the subject, and she transformed this material in a chorus of voices that is always "we" and "us", never personal yet extremely intimate. She creates a delicate amalgam of different experiences converging in one only voice. The language is simple but sentences beautifully carved, and they smoothly flow by like waves. A poetic, incantatory prose with an extraordinary evocative power.
The novel is divided into 8 sections tracing the lives of these extraordinary women from their difficult journey across the ocean, scared, excited, seasick, confused. It goes on to depict their meeting with their husbands, their first nights as new brides. The disappointments, the hardships, the small, precious, unexpected joys. Their experiences as hard labourers, mothers, wives. Their struggle to both settle in and maintain their heritage, and, finally, the arrival of war and its consequences.
A wonderful book in all ways. I loved the way the author brilliantly managed to maintain her blend of juxtaposed voices all through the novel, in very different contexts. I loved the way she could create a whole world already from the very first pages. I loved how she could make every single image into something recognizable, understandable, moving. I loved her mastery at imagining details that are small yet full of meaning. Very simply, I loved everything of this book.
The title refers to a small Buddha statue a woman forgets in her attic as she leaves her house to an unknown destination, towards the end of the book. But of course it echoes "The Madwoman in the Attic", a landmark in feminist literary criticism. As if to underline that this fragment of history, as countless more, belongs to women, at least from the perspective she chose to write from. It is a little disappointing that the Italian translation, good as it may be, changes the title, becoming "venivamo tutte per mare" (we all came through the sea). The original title is much more interesting and it underlines that this novel doesn't stand alone, because it's backed by other voices, other stories that were experienced and told by women.