Alan Spence has written some of the best poetry and prose of the last 30 years so it’s always exciting when something new appears. His latest novel, Night Boat, is subtitled ‘A Zen Novel’ and that is as good a description of what unfolds as I could ever come up with, not just in content but also in tone. Night Boat follows the life of Iwajiro, a young Japanese boy who enters the gates of hell at a frighteningly young age, and who becomes the celebrated Zen master Hakuin. From that arresting opening a complex and enlightening life unfolds, one which is far from perfect, and which doesn’t pretend to be otherwise.
Even for those well versed in Japanese culture, the world in which the novel is set will be quite alien, and it is initially difficult to focus and adjust to what unfolds, but this is not to do with language, character or setting. In fact some of the language is wonderfully familiar. At one point a woman comments ‘What’s for you will not go by you’, a Scottish Zen aphorism if ever there was one. What is unusual is the pace of the novel. Night Boat is a book not to be rushed, and I believe it would be impossible to do so and fully engage with the challenges it presents. It is a novel of contemplation, not only for Hakuin and his followers, but also for the reader.
There are aphorisms and ideas which will have you thinking on your own lives, and some which you will never contemplate again, because this is actually a more familiar and human story than it first appears. Or should I say ‘stories’, as Night Boat is structured as a set of short tales, each one an encounter which Hakuin has and which contains a lesson to learn, or a truth to discover. Hakuin never claims that he has all the answers, only more questions (which can infuriate those who seek his guidance, but not the reader as they get the bigger picture). Hakuin knows that what he teaches does not constitute an absolute truth.
Once you have adjusted to life in 18th century Japan you will want to spend more time there, learning at the master’s feet, even when his own self doubt is painful. It is that which makes the story believable and recognisable. The array of characters who seek him out range from the superior samurai doing his master’s bidding, a young women possessed, demons who hide in the shadows, and immortal monks, but there are also the more recognisable, everyday people such as disappointed parents, jealous co-workers and single mothers.
The unrelenting humanity which runs through Night Boat is something which can be found in all of Spence’s work, as well as a black, and rather wicked, sense of humour. It is stated more than once that ‘Existence is suffering’, but what comes across is that existence is absurd, with even those who spend their lives contemplating what it all means coming up with subjective answers and further questions.
Night Boat is a novel to immerse yourself in, one to return to and reflect upon. Although it is a very specific setting, its lessons, and the lives of its characters, could be applied to anyone at any time, reminding us that there is more that unites us than divides us. When you finish reading you’ll find that while the world may remain the same, how you look at it will have changed. Isn’t. That. So?
*A longer version of this review appeared elsewhere, but it’s a secret…