by Kimberly Beek
Adam Grydehøj holds a Ph.D. in Ethnography from the University of Aberdeen U.K. He is most interested in islands and folklore in a contemporary context. Currently, he puts his ethnographic skills and his years of study of folklore to good use as the Director of Island Dynamics, an organization that uses cultural anthropology, economic geography, foreign and public policy, and tourism studies to “create and communicate island studies knowledge through conferences, courses, research and consulting.” Adam is very much a global citizen with a comprehensive understanding of how remembering the past, and the ways in which we do so, affects possibilities in the present.
Adam’s debut novel I Have Not Answered is being marketed as a ‘supernatural thriller’, so readers of this blog may wonder how it also fits into the realm of Buddhist fiction. In my first communication with Adam, he wrote of I Have Not Answered that “I did consciously write it as a Buddhist novel – or rather, I thoroughly edited it into being a Buddhist novel from the end of the first draft onwards.” There are overt Buddhist elements in the narrative, since the seeming protagonist of the novel, Innes, practices Buddhist meditation in an effort to overcome some of his perceived challenges. Innes is a researcher who finds himself embroiled in strange circumstances while researching folklore in Shetland. What is more surprising, however, is the seamless interweaving of Buddhist cosmology into the perspective offered by the novel’s narrator, the real protagonist of the work. It is this interweaving that puts emphasis on the ‘supernatural’ in the label ‘supernatural thriller’.
The following interview with Adam may, in fact, provide a ‘flipside’ reading of the novel, since I Have Not Answered is set in Shetland and will likely be read as a novel about a particular locale, steeped in the locale’s inherent cultures and concerns. And the novel’s reception will be shaped by the reader’s interpretation of the narrator. So I feel very fortunate to have interviewed Adam through email in order to get an ‘author’s insight’ into a debut novel that is, indeed, a work of Buddhist fiction, and so much more.
What follows is Part I of a very rich, illuminating exchange with Adam Grydehøj about his first novel, I Have Not Answered (Beewolf Press: Copenhagen, Denmark, 2014). Part II will be posted next week, so I hope, dear reader, that you return to read both parts.
KB: Can you share with me a bit about your own experience with Buddhism?
AG: My own experience of Buddhism is a bit difficult to express.
When I first started my ‘academic career’ as a bachelor’s student at The Evergreen State College, Washington State, I began by studying philosophy and comparative religion, which later morphed into folk belief and then, rather awkwardly, into small island governance and economic development. I suppose that this early background in comparative religion gave me some expectations for dealing with these sorts of subjects while my later work on folk belief taught me to distinguish between lived (or apparently lived) supernatural experience, feelings of religious devotion, and myth.
I did not start paying any attention to Buddhism whatsoever until after my son, Sigurd, was born in 2004. It actually began, inauspiciously enough, with Godzilla. As a child, I had watched quite a few ‘B-movies’, having inherited the tradition of American B-movie viewership from my mother. I thought that Sigurd might enjoy them. He thus received a pack containing DVDs of five early Godzilla films (1954-1974) when he was four years old. Sigurd really enjoyed these, and though we had been watching these in the English dubs, I thought that it couldn’t hurt to introduce him to some other Japanese films (which also gave me an excuse to finally watch some cinematic masterworks). It was through this that Sigurd and I moved from Godzilla into Kurosawa (both his historical/samurai films and those taking place in contemporary Japan) – and we have maintained a joint interest in Japan and Japanese movies ever since. Indeed, on the basis of films like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress as well as Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, Sigurd came to regard himself as a Buddhist. The sort of conception of Buddhism that one would derive from such movies is, of course, very different to the more ‘peace-and-love’ focused vision of Buddhism that is most common in the West these days. This has been reinforced in Sigurd through our reading of the Heart Sutra, parts of the Lotus Sutra, Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings, etc.
But here, I must separate myself from Sigurd, for with my academic background and mindset, I have not been able to as straightforwardly accept the trappings of Zen Buddhism without worrying about the cosmology behind it. In so many present-day understandings of Buddhism, particularly here in the West, the emphasis on elements of the Buddhist tradition that fit our current social context (often mediated through Theosophist and post-Theosophist thinkers, particularly W.Y. Evans-Wentz) obscures culturally difficult ideas concerning the suffering that is inherent in the concept of a vast cycle of death and rebirth trending toward Nirvana. So, even at the time when I was most engaged with Buddhism per se (during a romance with a practicing Buddhist, which partly coincided with the writing of this novel), I was never able to accept the forest without investigating the trees, as it were.
At the same time, I came to be increasingly fascinated with how East Asian culture negotiates these issues, particularly in films (not all of which I showed to my son!). Japanese movies like Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968); Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (1964); and Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) show a willingness to explore the interface between Buddhist cosmology, lived practice, and human psychology. In these films (and many other East Asian films, not all of them involving supernatural subjects, that take up the Buddhist traditional mantle), Buddhism is not a path to immediate self-realisation; it is a path to further suffering. As indeed should be the case, given that, from a traditional Buddhist cosmological perspective, it is highly unlikely for human protagonists to be on the cusp of Nirvana.
So, to tie these various strands of my own life together, I am approaching Buddhism from a specifically East Asian perspective, rooted in 1) my academic interest in vernacular religion, 2) my love for good movies, and 3) my personal desire to learn about what motivated the thinking of a person who was very special to me.
KB: Clearly your experience of Buddhism is different than that of the novel’s main character, Innes. What can you tell me about the character Innes’ experience and ‘translation’ of Buddhism? He seems to be using Buddhism rather than practicing it.
AG: I honestly do not know how Innes got interested in Buddhism. The narrator does not have sufficient insight into Innes’ psychology (or perhaps human psychology in general) to be able to tell us this. I rather suspect that Innes picked up Zen Buddhism at some point in secondary school and did a lot of research about it. It is pretty clear to me that his learning is ‘book learning’, and he is placing his superior knowledge of the historical written sources above the experiential knowledge of other practitioners, as is evident in the scene at the yoga club in the town of Lerwick. Innes’ real problem, of course, is that he is attempting to use Buddhism in an instrumental manner, striving toward detachment in order to dull himself to the pain he feels from his failing relationship with his girlfriend (Sal). I imagine that Innes had a lot of knowledge of Buddhism prior to the problems in his love life, but I do not imagine that he was particularly emotionally engaged with Buddhism until then. What Innes cannot see is that his faulty Buddhist practice, his stubborn asceticism, is drawing him toward (temporary) damnation, not toward eternal liberation.
Innes is seeking to give his life meaning by solving what is really a very minor, though very complicated, academic riddle. As with his dangerous Buddhist practice, he fails to understand that it does not matter how the story ends. It is the process that matters.
I think that Innes gains a measure of self-understanding at the end of the novel, but I also think that, by the time this comes, it is too little, too late, and a part of me wonders whether Innes’ next incarnation is going to be like the narrator’s current form. Innes’ experience cannot really be understood without recourse to the narrator’s experience.
KB: After much mulling, re-reading of passages and contextualizing, I can only conclude that the narrator is a trow (fairy). Am I off on this?
AG: To me, the narrator has always been the centre of the book, the protagonist who drives events forward. This causes technical difficulties for telling the story, obviously, since the narrator needs to interact with the other characters while not speaking (it – he? – has a single line of spoken dialogue) and is generally invisible.
I know that the narrator is going to be regarded as a trow. This is unavoidable, for trow is the word that exists for the narrator in the cultural context in which the narrator finds itself. There are even indications that the narrator associates itself with what people are terming trows. The people of Shetland are not aware of the true nature of such trows. Besides which, none of the Shetlanders in the novel, with the possible exception of Graham, actually believe in trows.
Yet trow itself is just a word. The narrator is conflicted about words. For the narrator, words have power, are something to be feared – but it is the intention behind words that give them meaning, not the sounds or the concepts themselves. As in (fairly universal) folk belief, names have particular power, and the narrator’s namelessness as well as its inability to ever learn Innes’ name are an indication of its own impotence, of its own curse. To me though, the narrator is no more a trow than a yokai or a dwarf or a ghost or whatever else humans might choose to call such things on the basis of their own culturally mediated experience.
What I know – and what the narrator, crucially, does not know – is that, cosmologically speaking, it is a preta or hungry ghost, destined never to achieve what it desires most. What the narrator desires most seems to be connection with a human. At times, it seems to be seeking a romantic connection, but based on how events in the novel play out, I would guess that the narrator is unconsciously seeking to project its own nature onto a person, to attain actual unity. There are indications that the narrator’s attempts at achieving such connections always end in death. The narrator is not evil, but it is inherently malignant to humans. When the narrator someday gains self-awareness, someday comes to understand this, it will at last be able to move closer toward liberation – a step up in the cycle of rebirth. Will this take another two years, two millennia, millions of years? I have no idea. Perhaps we can gain hope from the end of the novel that the narrator has learned something. But perhaps not, for we know that the narrator is cursed with forgetfulness, which we also know is a function of its damnation.
KB: How did you come to the idea of the narrator? After reading the novel I cannot imagine the story told by any but this narrator, but I have never encountered anything like this before.
AG: I came to the idea of having the narrator be a ‘hungry ghost’ as a result of wondering what kind of emotional life such a being might have. What is the psychology of the compulsion to destroy the thing that one loves the most, and to be unaware that one is doing so? Just as Innes mistakenly believes that he is observing people from a position within the world without intervening in the working of the world, so too the narrator genuinely believes that it exists in isolation, that its own actions and thoughts do not affect those of Innes. The narrator fails to realize that Innes’ words and visions have gradually begun echoing its own and vice versa. The narrator shows no comprehension that it is “the uncanny presence in the room.” The instant that the narrator realizes this, its (present stage of) damnation will be over. The nightmare imagining of the mirror without eyes (pages 68-69) presents the narrator at the cusp of self-realisation and thus of self-destruction and renewal, but burdened by its karma, there is a point beyond which the narrator cannot yet progress.
KB: The way you crafted the narrator suggests a good deal of flexibility. Why did you choose this form for a narrator? As far as I have read, this is the first version of a hungry ghost in contemporary popular fiction (written for a Western audience) that is not a psychologized version of a human character, but is imagined as an actual preta.
AG: I came up with the idea for this narrator precisely because of the lack you note. There are plenty of excellent fictional accounts (in both literature and film) of human encounters with the supernatural. There are also plenty of accounts of the supernatural’s encounters with people, though these often have something of a post-modern flair. An exception could be Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, depending on how you interpret the story. Meyrink, who was himself interested in Buddhist (and more broadly, Theosophical) thought, is a strong influence on my own writing.
At any rate, I got to thinking that a preta would likely have a very interesting psychology and set of emotions. I hypothesized that an inherent aspect of this state of being would be a lack of awareness that one was a preta.
This is the central tragedy of the narrator of I Have Not Answered. It possesses insufficient self-awareness to recognize its own fundamental malignancy. If it possessed this level of self-awareness, it would no longer be a preta. Instead, it believes that it has succeeded in distancing itself from the world and in having conquered will. It is this mistaken belief in its own lack of desire that leads it to destroy others, ironically by pushing others (in this case, Innes) toward greater willfulness. The curse of the preta is thus precisely that it is unconscious of its will.
Stand-by for Part II!