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Apr 20
Arts and Poetry
Dreamers and Their Shadows

Dreamers and Their ShadowsA Book Review of a New Book by Douglas Penick
originally published on The Chronicle Project

review by John Sell

In the bombed-out wreckage of post-war Tokyo, a safe is discovered that contains several scrolls within a gorgeous antique lacquer box. They chronicle the strange trajectory of the Prince of Ling, a sixteenth-century Japanese spiritual teacher who tried to found the Kingdom of Shambhala in an area of Hokkaido. The scroll paper is even older than the period described, and at least two of the writers use script styles that are older still. “The whole of Japan is pure invention,” said Oscar Wilde, quoted in the book’s epigraph, and Douglas Penick’s book, Dreamers and Their Shadows (Mountain Treasury Press, 2013), is a novel — an invention — not a memoir.

The novel presents five annals by different writers, all purporting to be from sixteenth-century Japan and all concerning the charismatic Prince of Ling. The two most important witnesses from the scrolls are Lady M, the courtesan who writes the first annal, and the Duke of K, the Prince’s brother-in-law and student. The scrolls are discovered in the 1950s, soon discredited, but studied nonetheless in the mid-sixties by a late-career Japanese academic and Edward, his American graduate-student assistant, who translates them. The novel interweaves the stories of the Prince of Ling and of Edward, as he moves through the Japan of the sixties and then America — New York and Boulder, Colorado — in the late sixties and early seventies.

Douglas Penick

Douglas Penick

The author, Douglas Penick, was a long-time student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and, like the Duke of K, the brother-in-law of his teacher for a time. Chronicles readers of a certain age will instantly recognize many events and personalities from the years that Trungpa Rinpoche taught in North America, especially in Boulder, where Mr. Penick lives. Students of Trungpa Rinpoche may find, as I did, that his world is more vividly evoked here than in the biographies and memoirs, which perhaps aim to serve another function. This vivid experience is partly due to Mr. Penick’s skill, and also because he has written a novel about a world that we remember in our own ways. Maybe the discrepancies between the novel and our memories heighten the effect. But the book isn’t simply a roman a clef, although on that level it provides a certain perspective. It stands on its own as a work of fiction. In other words, you don’t have to have been there to appreciate it.

Back to the novel: The scrolls are discovered, and there is some excitement in academic circles. In the environment of a shattered culture, the sense that there could be an alternative history, an alternative kingdom, speaks to a longing there that’s hard to articulate. After some time, however, a spectrographic analysis reveals the scrolls to be fraudulent. It’s puzzling, though — the antique red lacquer box is genuine, as is the very old Mongolian brocade they are wrapped in. It is unclear who could have perpetrated this fraud, or why. The whole situation is “unpleasantly redolent of stage magic.” Embarrassed scholars are suddenly allergic to the whole enterprise, and the annals are forgotten.

A dozen years later when the distinguished, late-career academic takes an interest in them again, it is widely viewed as eccentric. Using Edward, the American graduate student, to translate them brings complexities of its own. The time? The mid-sixties. The worlds of the annals and the worlds of Edward and the professor begin to echo each other.

Continue reading the review: The Chronicle Project

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