Reviewed by Kimberly Beek
My apologies, dear reader, for the overly long wait on this review. It is no reflection on Maya: A Novel by C. W. (Sandy) Huntington, Jr. In fact, his first novel about journeys is what accompanied me on my most recent journey: the huge transition of moving with my family from North America to the Middle East. This transition has taken months, and over those months, I have read Maya in the same way one would eat a full five course meal, savouring it and trying to eat slowly so as to appreciate every bite. I went back to the story continually to reread portions that spoke to me, that spurred me to read other works and that encouraged me to view life situations with a new perspective.
On the surface, the novel tells the story of University of Chicago doctoral candidate Stanley Harrington who travels to India on a Fulbright scholarship in order to study Sanskrit. The story begins in the India of 1975, when visas to stay and travel the subcontinent were easier to procure and seekers of all sorts were looking East-ward. Stanley is all too happy to escape his life in Chicago, the location of his failing marriage and his long suffering dissertation advisor. As he travels through India meeting teachers, gurus, locals, other academics, expats and spiritual seekers, his journey through a richly described cultural landscape and some of its most famous sacred texts begins to parallel an inner journey that opens a door to an awakening.
I will not give away more of the storyline than what I have written above, except to say that Maya is a novel I will read again, and again. And when I read it again it will be alongside copies (in translation) of the Sanskrit texts referenced in the novel that Stanley uses to navigate his personal journey. Reading Maya made me want to broaden my reading experience. For example, this novel could be used as the locus of a sophomore level university course on Sanskrit literature read in the West, in translation. At the very least, a reading guide from the publisher, Wisdom Publications, would be a nice addition for readers who want to take their reading experience further. This is not to say that the novel is at all stuffy or overly academic – quite the opposite. The Sanskrit literature referred to or even translated and used in the story is always a jumping off point for philosophical ideas that are so well integrated into the plot line that readers do not notice them overtly. Rather, the narrative is first person so as Stanley lives out the philosophical hypotheses he’s learning about and translating, he takes the reader along for the ride. And it’s a roller coaster of a ride through libraries, jungles and holy cities, on elephants, trains and buses, and through the full range of emotions from desire to self-loathing, to a moment or two of equanimity.
While I have not met Dr. Sandy Huntington in person, we have exchanged emails and he is a very kind correspondent. I took the opportunity to ask him if he would consider using his first work of fiction for a university course in the way I suggested. He replied:
“I’m actually planning on using Maya in a course I’ll teach for the first time in spring 2016, titled “The Spiritual Quest”. Along with Maya, we’ll be reading some other fiction and memoir. I haven’t yet put together a list, but I’m considering things like Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan, Hesse’sNarcissus and Goldman… I know this isn’t exactly what you’ve suggested, but I agree with you that Maya could be used in a number of various academic settings, as a way of inspiring students to go deeper into Buddhism, Hinduism, or Sanskrit literature in general.”
Following on my initial urge to use the novel as a jumping off point for a broader reading experience, Stanley’s story and Huntington’s beautiful writing style have led me to contemplate further the very act of reading. At its simplest, reading is an act of creative communicative engagement out of which meaning is made. In creating a fictional story such as Maya, Huntington performs maya itself – he creates an illusion. Thus one way to read the novel is to view it as an experiment that uses fiction to examine the idea of life as an illusion. Taken further, though, the title of the novel poses the question of whether fiction can have true meaning, to which I answer a loud YES! If there is one thing I took from the act of reading this novel it is that fiction holds a good deal of truth, which should not be confused with fact. Fiction should never be dismissed for lack of meaning or truth.
The passage in the novel that underscores my path of pondering can be found in Chapter 35 (of 40). At this point in the story, Stanley is living in Banaras (also known as Varanasi). He is living in a small room, meditating daily and translating passages of a Buddhist Prajnaparamita text. He has been working on translating for about an hour one day when his friend Mickey knocks on his door. Mick is an expat and spiritual seeker from South Boston. He had been raised Catholic but after taking robes in Thailand and living as a Buddhist monk for a time, he had drifted to India and had been there for about two years studying Indian art and music before meeting Stanley. What Stanley likes most about Mick, aside from his monkish tendancies, is his seemingly innate ability to fit in to Indian culture. In this scene, Mick brings Stanley a ticket to go to Delhi where Stanley wished to meet with a Tibetan monk in order to continue his translation work. Mick spies a bit of the translation and reads it. Having learned some Pali and experienced Buddhism in Thailand, Mick loves to argue about philosophy, and his first response to the translated passage is: “This Mahayana stuff is crazy shit, Stan.” (Kindle Edition, Loc 4881 of 5794).
Part of the translation describes the preparedness of a bodhisattva. Mick questions Stanley about it and in the ensuing conversation, an analogy is incorrectly drawn between the bodhisattva‘s preparedness and the Bhagavadgita‘s character Arjuna preparing to go into battle. Mick takes the analogy to an unexpected conclusion and states “So the bodhisattva is well prepared to go out and kill his relatives” to which Stanley replies “I don’t think so, Mick.” (Kindle Edition, Loc 4890 0f 5794). In an attempt to set Mick straight, Stanley says (I imagine) irritably “You can’t just go and read a Buddhist Prajnaparamita text as if it were a chapter from the Bhagavadgita.” Mick asks why not, and Stanley’s explanation is nothing short of the best philosophical summary of the difference between Hindu dharma and Buddhist dharma that I have ever read. When he finishes, Stanley proclaims “It’s all shunya — empty of any kind of absolute or ultimate reality.” But it is Mick who gets in the last word: “Sounds to me like some kind of bullshit philosophical hair-splitting.” (Kindle Edition, Loc 4912 of 5794).
There are at least three readers involved in the above scene: the real reader, the fictional Stanley and the fictional Mick.
Through Stanley, we are given an example of a careful academic reader. The scene clarifies philosophies and reaffirms my conviction of the importance of context. Every reader brings her own context to the text, and the author has no way of knowing what that context will be. And every author brings a context to her work that is influenced by culture and era. Both of these contexts influence and shape the reading experience, which will form another context all together. This is why reading is creative communication because meaning and context, as well as meaning in contexts, are being created through the act of reading.
Through Mick, we have an example of a reader imposing (or juxtaposing?) a particular context onto a text. Even though Mick had been a Theravadin Buddhist monk in Thailand, he reverts to his knowledge of Indian texts such as the Gita when reading Stanley’s translation. Mick doesn’t really appreciate the philosophical nuances that separate Hindu Samkhya philosophy from Buddhist Prajnaparamita. For me, Mick’s character as a practitioner and person of action poses a type of foil to Stanley’s character as a scholar and philosopher, and I am still thinking about what this can teach me about reading as passive or active or both.
Through my own reading (playing the part here of the real reader), by the end of the scene – if not the end of the novel – I was questioning my ontology. This is the power of Maya the novel and maya the illusion.
My question for Dr. Huntington at this junction was to ask who was his intended audience. He responded thoughtfully, as follows:
“After years of writing and publishing for a handful of Buddhologists, I really, really wanted to break out of that closed circle and write for a wider audience. I’m a voracious reader of literary fiction, so like-minded readers were, I suppose, my first target: readers who especially enjoy the play of language on the page and the power of metaphor, how punctuation can be used to create a certain cadence, and all the rest of things that literary fiction is about. I like the kind of books that are set amidst quotidian dramas: the difficulties of love, the struggle to deal with a cranky boss, the joys and sorrows of everyday life. I’m not a genre reader; heavily plotted novels of romance, detective, sci-fi and so forth are not my thing. I’m all about mundane realism – which is, of course, oddly ironic, given the philosophical underpinnings of Maya. But it’s in conventional truth where we find the ultimate – that’s basic madhyamaka. In any case, I also wanted very much to take the philosophical ideas I’d been dealing with in my academic writing and bring them into the context of fiction.”
While Huntington’s first novel can be read as a philosophical treatise on maya in fictional form, it is also a quotidian drama that contains as much romance and adventure as philosophy. Some of my favourite quotations from the novel will give you a better idea of the beautiful prose narrative that awaits you in your role as reader.
“Love is not about getting what we want. Love is about how we live with what we are given.” (Kindle Edition 748-5794)
“All the yogic traditions of India begin and end here, before creation, where the breath turns back on itself, where the breath of God moves like wind over the waters of the deep.” (Kindle Edition 2202-5794)
“She got up from the stool, her hands slipped around back again, and off came the bra. Once free, her breasts seemed to swell in the fluttering light of the candle. Bending low she stepped out of her petticoat one leg at a time. Stark naked now, she leaned over to blow out the candle. Her body appeared to me flawless, perfect–a divine vision sprung from my own desire.” (Kindle Edition 2397-5794)
“Just outside my window, a large crowd had gathered under a floursecent streetlight that cast a pallid glow over their faces. I could see the shadow of something lying crumpled in the dirt. A man stooped over and picked it up, and I watched as he cradled a small, limp body. . . . The man was staring down at the boy, his jaw slack, mouth hanging open. All around him women wailed and clutched at their saris. The sounds they made were appalling; I have never heard anything, before or since, so rawly human, so saturated in despair. Their cries rose up from a dark world buried deep beneath the earth.” (Kindle Edition 3326-5794)
“The image of his face floated there on the dark surface of the glass like a spirit trapped in the bardo realm between death and rebirth.” (Kindle Edition 3558-5794)
“First judge, then choose: Want or not want. Desire or fear. Self always must judge and choose. So everything very simple: No judge—no self. No self—no suffer! You see? Need only to stop judge and choose. Sit quiet, welcome pain and pleasure equal, like two stranger come for visit. No need for invite—guest come and guest go. Guest come, you be nice. Guest go, you be nice. Very simple.” (Kindle Edition 5603-5794)
And I will leave you with this, dear reader:
“Our life and our death are inseparably bound together with words and ideas. All of this,” he swung his arm in a wide arc, “is made of words: shabda-mayi. Words, and only words: shabda-matra. This is Kalidasa’s meaning. This world of words–this life and death–it is nothing but bara tamasha.” He examined my face, as if unsure whether I was familiar with the Hindi expression. “Big drama. You know? Theater.” (Kindle Edition 2849-5794)