Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tim Ward's "Arousing the Goddess": Book Review

Certainly this memoir reads as if a novel. A Canadian writer reminiscing on his adventures a decade earlier--erotic and emotional, spiritual and travel--this tale of "sex and love in the Buddhist ruins of India" from the mid-80s recounts in appropriately graphic detail Ward's initiation into what he accounts for as "tantric" experiences. These enter his physical relationship with Sabina, an alluring honey-blonde Indologist from Austria who's researching the earth-touching gesture made by the Buddha to reject the alluring daughters of Mara and his own temptations, the night he found enlightenment under the mythic bodhi tree.

The search for "shakti," the life-force transmitted by a thunderbolt jolt he feels as he makes love to his fiery girlfriend in India, impels the middle of this narrative. It starts in Ladakh with Lama Philippe, who's rather improbably lecturing about recondite Kaliyuga lore at the top of the knife-edged summit they share where they try to plant prayer flags in the harsh wind.  Ward throughout this spirited tale interweaves what seem fictional interludes, or improbably detailed conversations a decade later reported (he does keep a journal, I admit), so I am unsure as to the precise veracity of his recollections. However, allowing for this literary conceit, the results tend to be as exciting as fiction and as engaging as a spiritual and erotic quest can become in talented hands and a thoughtful, and considerably honest and relentless, mind.

As the narrative progresses and his visa circumstances, complicated by the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the resultant tightening of an already recalcitrant bureaucracy towards foreigners, Ward must choose his predetermined itinerary and wish to travel about as a bhikku (wandering monkish sort) in his eagerness to try out the mendicant life amidst his recent fascination with Buddhism and Indian thought. This separates him in more ways than one from Sabina. The tension increases.

With the growing unease, Ward chooses to drift into reverie or nightmare to convey some of his inner turmoil. A Nepali woman in a red vest at a millstone grinding rice, a crammed train, a slaughterhouse by the Calcutta tracks, a visit to a hospice run by Mother Teresa's sisterhood, or a riotously risque retelling of the Mara's challenge to the one who will be the Buddha enliven this direction. "You quit your job. You deserted your wife. You're a deadbeat dad, and you're a welfare bum dependent on handouts." (210)

It may depart from conventional truth for a first-person account, but it enriches it with verve. It may not please purists, and it may draw into suspicion other parts of the narrative, perhaps, as much of this story with Sabina feels very dramatized. But she's quite a force of nature, evidently, and intellect; her emotions are as mercurial as his. Their mutual need for comfort deepens their "tantric" engagement, and complicates their alliance.

She confronts him, but indirectly, as in this internally dramatized passage, via Tim's Belgian lama: "You come to live like a monk but won't give up desire; you pursue Sabina, but turn back because you think God speaks to you." (115) Similarly, when a horrid encounter with an armless boy bound by a leash to his begging elder (grandmother?) haunts him, he ponders: "Pity in Calcutta could only be a means to alleviating one's own suffering: the suffering of the rich, come so unpleasantly face to face with human misery, mass-produced in the squalid streets." (151)

Such predicaments deepen the impact of what begins as a (delayed) coming-of-age story for a Canadian abroad looking for enlightenment. I encourage any reader put off or bewildered by the tone to continue, for Ward knows when to tell all and when to hold back. He also ends it realistically yet gracefully. No easy feat for what appears a tough story to relive and set down on paper years later. (author's website; Amazon US 4-13-13)


tony bailie said...

This reminds me of The Tantric Quest by Daniel Odier, who under his pen name Delacorta also wrote a series of very French, limply plotted but strangely addictive novels, including Diva which was turned into a film.
He also wrote a novel/screenplay called Light Years Away, set in Dublin and somewhere out west - bogs, mountains, sea etc. Again almost lacking in plot but with an Eastern/Gnostic undercurrent. I have it on DVD - European format - but not sure if available in US.


John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Tony, once again, thanks for the nod. You certainly have an eclectic range of references you too are tuned into. I dimly recall "Diva": Mew Wave 80s, geometric hair, motorcycle chase in the Paris Metro? I will look up the Daniel Odier reference--sure sounds typically Gallic, despite the Oirish bogeens!