A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is a story about a modern-day Japanese monk who has to tackle silly American interpersonal politics when he is despatched to oversee the building of a Buddhist temple in Brooklyn, New York. He’s had a highly unusual childhood as a trainee priest (once he was admitted to the temple at age 11, his family had to bow to him and could only address him as Reverend). He becomes a strict and highly talented art teacher, who needs to bend with the wind to achieve the Buddhist way. Sending him to New York forced this stiff and rather arrogant man out of his rigid ways. His impact on the Brooklyn Buddhist community is partly comical, partly hard-hitting. This is a not a gentle book, though the narrative is quietly done. People die, violent things happen, great grief is experienced, and many powerful egos have to be massaged before necessary things can take place. Mother-son relationships do not come across gently.
I liked this novel. I read it compulsively in bed till past midnight, and was pleased by the ending, which opened up new questions rather than closing things down. I came away having been dipped into the hitherto unknown waters of American Buddhism, but I didn’t feel that I’d had the same experience with modern Japanese Buddhism. I think this may be because the author, though clearly a scholar of Buddhist traditions, possibly a Buddhist himself, is not Japanese. If the novel had centred predominantly on Brooklyn, this would have been fine, but (ignored by the blurb) the first half of the novel is all set in Fukushima. While the novel was being written, Fukushima was largely unknown to the West, which was, I think, the author’s point in choosing to use it as the novel’s setting and Seido Oda’s home. There is a reference to the tsunami (maybe inserted into the text last-minute?) as if to say ‘yes, THAT Fukushima’. It gives solidity to Oda’s background for the novel’s western readers: we know a fair bit now about that part of Japan.
But we really only know it from media reportage (the author, Richard C Morais, is a journalist), and I think this is the weakest aspect of the novel: the essential Japanese parts are written by a foreigner, and it shows. The descriptions of Japanese life and vocabulary and customs are written from observation, and careful learning, not from having lived it. There’s a lot about the tea-house that Oda’s family ran, the monastery where he trained, the local mountain landscape where he went fishing, and somehow it all reads like an very detailed guided tour. There is also no sense of historicity: we simply don’t know what decade we’re in at the start of the novel, or the end, and that’s quite confusing.
In Brooklyn it’s different. This section of the novel exudes life and liveliness, and the familiar device of watching the story unfold through the eyes of the stranger in town works extremely well. The American characters are memorable, and their common focus in being western Buddhists will be so unfamiliar to many people that everything they do is fascinating. I also liked very much reading about a Buddhist worship group as if it were mainstream and completely normal to most people’s cultural experience. Different characters live their lives through the workings out of the plot, so we can follow several life threads at once. It’s a good read.
Richard C Morais, Buddhaland Brooklyn (Scribner: New York, 2012; Alma Books: London, 2013), ISBN 978 1 84688 241 8; £12.99.
Kate podcasts about books that she likes on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com