Book review: Night Boat by Alan Spence

Alan Spence. Picture: TSPL
Alan Spence. Picture: TSPL
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Academic critics may argue that the subject-matter of a novel is of little importance. What matters is how it is done. This is true. Good novels have been written about all sorts of things, from various standpoints.

Night Boat

BY Alan Spence

Canongate, 380pp £14.99

Yet, obstinately, most of us don’t agree, in practice anyway. We may accept the argument in principle, yet nevertheless admit that we don’t like novels about the sea or middle-class adultery in the suburbs or aliens from other worlds. This is fair enough. We read novels first of all for pleasure, only occasionally as a matter of duty, and, if the subject doesn’t attract, we are likely to be uninterested or bored. Then we may wish the author had employed his talent in a different way.

Alan Spence is a case in point. He is one of the best Scottish writers of our time. His first collection of linked short stories, Its Colours They Are Fine, about childhood and youth in Glasgow, was wonderful. A subsequent novel, The Magic Flute, which followed a number of the characters in these stories into adulthood, was almost equally good. He has since done admirable work as the Professor of Creative Writing at the Aberdeen University and the organiser and animating spirit of Aberdeen’s Word Festival. But his own writing has moved away from the lyrically rendered Scottish social realism of his first books as he immersed himself in Zen Buddhism, and this has disappointed some of his early admirers, myself among them. Night Boat is the fruit of his Zen studies, a fictional re-creation of the life and teachings of the 18th century Zen master Ekaku Hakuin. (Ekaku means wise crane.) It is ambitious and remarkable. I would suppose it has been years in the making, years first of brooding on the subject, years also perhaps in the writing.

It is evidence of an extraordinary understanding of a culture foreign to most of us, utterly unlike that in which the author was reared and which he once evoked so perfectly and movingly. Now he does the same for Japan and Zen, and some – many, I hope – will find this novel equally compelling and moving. It has doubtless required long years of research, but the research has been utterly absorbed, and is never obtrusive. If the novel was presented as a translation from the Japanese, I can’t believe many would find it unconvincing. It may fairly be described as the culmination of a life’s work, and this is not something which one can say of many novels.

It begins dramatically with the narrator, Hakuin himself, as an eight-year-old boy, listening to a frightening sermon about the different and terrible stages of descent into hell, a sermon which, with poetic licence, he remembers verbatim. It then follows, stage by stage, his arduous journey towards enlightenment. It is full of dramatic scenes, of struggles with teachers, some of whom readily resort to physical violence, some of whom condemn Zen as “dead” and dismiss him as a corpse. It presents a vivid and comprehensive picture of Japanese society, and every chapter is also full of incidental beauties, little stories and parables, short poems, snatches of lovely description, gnomic conversations, and acute observations.

Hakuin himself is convincing. It is as if the author has merged himself thoroughly in him by an act of creative imagination or, if you prefer, empathy. There is none of the staginess so frequently found in historical novels in which the author hasn’t managed to inhabit the foreign country of the past where they do things differently. Night Boat must surely be an early favourite for the next Walter Scott Prize.

In his Lectures on Literature, Nabokov said that a novelist was three things: story-teller, teacher and enchanter, and that the third was the most important. Spence is all three. The story he tells is good,
and well told. Anyone who wants to learn about Zen Buddhism and how to follow its way towards what is deemed to be Enlightenment will find him a good and sympathetic
teacher. And there are passages which may fairly be called enchanting. So he satisfies Nabokov’s criteria as few 
novelists do.

And yet I come back to the first paragraph of my review. For all its merits and beauties, this is a novel which more readers may start than finish. Many indeed are likely to be deterred by the subject, but even those who embark on the voyage may find they are soon lost. Nor have the publishers helped them. I perforce read it in a proof copy which lacks a glossary for the many Japanese words; footnotes explaining such terms as “koan” and “kensho” and phrases like “Namu myoho renge kyo” would have been more welcome still. Perhaps this deficiency has been remedied in the finished copy. If not, it should have been.

Ultimately this is a novel to which one can apply the words which Muriel Spark gave, as I remember , to Miss Brodie: “For those who like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like.” And they will like it a lot, positively revel in it.

For others, however, it will simply be not their cup of tea, no matter how jasmine-scented the tea is. But there it is. Novelists write what they must write, and it is impertinent to want it otherwise, and even those who feel like that must recognise that Alan Spence’s long journey into Zen has resulted in a remarkable, and remarkably fine, novel.

• Alan Spence is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 
16 August