Dianne Harke’s first novel, Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel is a fictional biography that might not have been completed but for the curiosity and encouragement of John Negru, Publisher at The Sumeru Press, Inc. As Harke explained in a recent interview, Negru read the first few chapters on Wattpad and offered to publish the finished manuscript. The Sumeru Press, Inc. is one part of Sumeru Books, a Canadian publishing company that focuses on Buddhist books, art and news. It is an important hub on the Canadian Buddhism landscape: “In addition to [their] publishing activities, [they] also maintain Canada’s leading Buddhist news blog (accessible at the bottom of [the] home page), and a directory of more than 580 Canadian Buddhist organizations (www.canadianbuddhism.info).” Sumeru also promotes a space for Canadian Buddhism on the international cultural landscape, as evidenced in this recent letter to the editor of Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2017 entitled “Northern Neighbor Neglect.” So when John Negru contacted me about Incognito, I knew I was in for a treat.
Alexandra David-Neel was an early 20th-century French explorer, spiritual seeker and feminist who travelled throughout Asia, including Bhutan, China, India, Japan, Sikkim, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Her journeys into sometimes dangerous areas were attempted during times of insular rule (Tibet was closed to the outside world) and times of great turmoil (such as the onset of WWI or the Second Sino-Japanese War). To move forward, Alexandra often had to travel incognito. Her adventures would have made for a good spy novel but she travelled in earnest search of various forms of enlightenment. Through her journeys and the application of her keen intellect, she became a scholar of Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Tibetan Buddhism. She was revered by lamas and tulkus and the European academy as well.
Harke’s book is not merely a straightforward biography of Alexandra’s life. An author’s note both begins and sets the tone for this special work. In the note, Harke relates that there is an invisible line between fiction and non-fiction. Even though she has done substantial research for the biography on the extraordinary life of Alexandra David-Neel, the book is a work of fiction. As support for her assertion, Harke cites Alexandra herself who advised that Tibetan authors use their imaginations to a measure that finds its equal in Western fairy tales, except that all of the “extravagant wonders that abound in their narratives” are taken as authentic events. While the subject matter of Harke’s biography may suggest that this is a book filled with imaginary adventures, it is actually the author’s writing style that pushes the work across the threshold of fiction. Harke’s rigorous research and choice of both first and third person points of view narratives simultaneously generate and situate the voice of Alexandra. The author fairly channels Alexandra to give the reader a backstage pass into the spiritual seeker’s internal and external worlds.
Were it not for Harke’s detailed research grounding this story, the life of Alexandra would be difficult to believe simply because it is so very astounding, as the title of the novel suggests. Over the course of her life and travels, Alexandra met with European and Asian dignitaries and ambassadors, befriended a Sikkim Prince, and discussed Buddhist concepts with both the Panchen Lama and the 13th Dalai Lama. These meetings helped to nurture her scholarly pursuits to learn and translate Sanskrit and Tibetan and to better understand Buddhist concepts. But her experiences travelling incognito allowed her a spiritual development which augmented her education in a way that traditional scholarship could never replicate. Harke’s first person narratives of Alexandra’s time in China, India and Nepal and subsequent journey to Lhasa, Tibet are peopled with a variety of savoury characters, from helpful shepherds and villagers to cave-dwelling hermits. In travelling incognito, Alexandra learned and lived her own version of Tibetan Buddhism. For example, she developed and used the fire of tumo, a meditative method of physiologically warming the body that was useful in the extreme conditions of the Himalayas (p. 101). In one side adventure, Alexandra was witness to a powa recitation, the “mystic incantation” that is chanted at the deathbed of a Buddhist to assist with the transference of consciousness to the next life (p. 113). And she experienced dream yoga after an encounter with a mysterious lama who insisted that she stop travelling incognito so that she could once again wear the rosary and rings of an initiate of Tibetan Buddhism (pp. 135 – 136). The effect of the first person narratives reads like a first-hand description of lived Tibetan Buddhism during the mid-twentieth century.
There is one more success in Harke’s first novel that I wish to mention in case it is overlooked. Whether intentional or not, her renderings of the European cultural contexts behind Alexandra’s story are instructive. The glimpses into the modus operandi of the Theosophical Society gave me a sense of how Theosophy and Spiritualism dovetailed with Buddhism and Hinduism at the turn of the twentieth century. Further, the systemic Orientalism that pervaded (and still permeates) Western societies’ perspectives of the “other” are evident in the form of descriptions of Protestant Buddhism: an idea of a “pure” Buddhism interpreted from the Pali canon that discredits and excludes any “folk ritual” and “superstition.” Orientalist representations are described in some of Alexandra’s surprised reactions to her early experiences of Buddhism outside of Europe. For example, in a scene rendered from 1891, Alexandra was in Colombo and for the first time attended a Buddhist temple only to be greeted with “a huge Buddha lacquered in a hideous canary yellow, like something in a lurid carnival. By its side supplicants had placed a package of toothpicks and a glass jar containing preserved carrots and peas. Do they really think that the Buddha nibbles pickled vegetables as he meditates? (p. 35).” Decades later, after living as a Buddhist in Tibet, her reactions to such forms of lived religion were conveyed as quite the opposite. Lastly, the juxtaposition of Alexandra’s feminism poised against European culture at the fin de siecle is played out beautifully in her patronly marriage to her husband “Mouchy” and her adoptive “parenting” of a Tibetan Buddhist lama, Yongden.
You can find Incognito: The Astounding Life of Alexandra David-Neel through Sumeru Books http://www.sumeru-books.com/dd-product/incognito-the-astounding-life-of-alexandra-david-neel/
or through Amazon.com https://www.amazon.com/Incognito-Astounding-Life-Alexandra-David-Neel/dp/1896559336