Night Boat, Alan Spence’s sixth novel, is a fictional “autobiography” of the life and teachings of Hakuin, an 18th-century Japanese Zen Buddhist master. It opens with Hakuin as a young boy, listening to a sermon about the Eight Burning Hells:
The hells, the monk explained, descended in order of severity, down and down, ever deeper into the underworld. The first of them was the Hell of Reviving, and even here, he said, the heat was unbearable, far beyond endurance. The ground was a searing expanse of white-hot iron and it was impossible to rest your feet even for a second without being scorched.
To avoid such terrifying torments, Hakuin follows an arduous path of meditation and struggle against temptation, doubt, and fear, and towards “enlightenment” and, eventually, fame as a teacher and calligrapher.
Night Boat is a bit of a boys’ own quest in spiritual guise – there isn’t much depth of characterisation beyond that of Hakuin and most of the female characters are temptresses, liars or saintly mothers or nuns. Hakuin faces down sexual temptation, meditates in the midst of a tsunami and the eruption of Mount Fuji, and tames his ego with the conundrums of impossible koans or paradoxes in order to achieve compassion and to overcome suffering and desire to become a sort of Buddhist superhero.
Nonetheless, it’s a great read and the descriptions of landscape and character, like the broad brushstrokes of Japanese calligraphy and haiku, create a magical, otherworldly feel. So, Mount Fuji
was hidden by spring mists, shimmered in summer haze, burned almost red in autumn, shone pure white in winter. But the shape of it, the form, was always there, taking the breath away, quickening the heart.
The overall effect of such descriptions is to foreground the processes of the inner world which are reflected in the outer, material and natural world. As a result, the book, like all the best quest narratives, can be enjoyed on several levels: as an adventure story, as an exploration of psyche, and as a tale of spiritual pilgrimage. You don’t need to be steeped in Buddhism yourself to enjoy, understand and learn from it.
Although Night Boat is peppered with Buddhist terminology, including “koans” such as, “What was your original face, before you were born?”, and concepts such as “kensho”, the perception of emptiness, and “satori”, the exploration of one’s true nature, such terms are never used gratuitously. Rather, they add to the book’s evocation of spiritual exoticism and “otherworldliness”. This sense of otherworldliness is sustained throughout by rich, sensuous descriptions –
In a tokonoma alcove, a single chrysanthemum had been placed in a vase in front of a hanging scroll inscribed with vigorous, fluid calligraphy reading The Flower-path. On one wall was mounted a samurai sword in its sheath. On the wall opposite hung a magnificent kimono, sleeves spread out like wings, dyed deep pink, patterned with gold-embroidered birds. The air was filled with the scent of a rich musky perfume, a dark, spicy expensive incense..
Spence, a playwright, novelist, short story writer and poet, is a noted haiku writer and there are many haikus and other short poems throughout the novel. For example,
Sitting doing nothing
hearing the old crow caw –
where is the poetry in this?
There are touches of this wry humour throughout the book – including the ironic warning sign at the beach, “In Event of Earthquake Beware of Tsunami”.
This is a beautifully-crafted book – even the sumptuous dustjacket with its night scene of an imagined seascape beneath snowy Mt. Fuji serves to heighten and enrich the reading experience.