In a forthcoming article as well as in a conference paper this past December, I’ve argued, in various ways, that Janwillem van de Wetering’s The Empty Mirror is a very important book for the study of modern Zen narrative. Unlike authors such as Daisetz Suzuki, Van de Wetering’s portrayal of Zen life shows that Zen utopias, as they are portrayed in so-called Zen encounter dialogues (see my explanation of this genre in this post), fail to correspond to the realities of life in a Japanese Zen monastery. Instead, Van de Wetering portrays his failures as a Zen Buddhist, showing that Zen is not necessarily a highway to wild enlightenment experiences, but also a way of life lived by ordinary human beings.
I guess I have a lot in common with Van de Wetering, which explains my attraction to him. Like him, my mother tongue is Dutch but I also write in English. Like him, I came to Zen frustrated with the complexity and seeming senselessness of existence. And like him, I had to abandon my early idealism for a more balanced view of the Zen tradition.
I therefore decided to read some of Van de Wetering’s detective novels. I’ve always found that the detective, as a figure who aims to decode mysteries and catch the criminal, has more than a passing resemblance to the striving Zen Buddhist, who aims unravel his koan to trap the ox that is his mind. In these novels, Van de Wetering seems to agree, working his deep knowledge of the Zen tradition and practice into stories about life and (sudden unexpected) death.
I’ll only discuss one of these for now. The Japanese Corpse is situated within Van de Wetering’s “Amsterdam Cops” series of books. Like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock and Watson or Midsommer Murders’ Tom Barnaby and Gavin Troy, the series derives much of its dynamic and cohesion from the interaction of two very different protagonists. In Van de Wetering’s books, the older of these two is called Grijpstra. Grijpstra is unhappily married, addicted to his work, and generally tired of life. His collaborator, De Gier, is much younger and a playboy, flitting from pretty girl to pretty girl. The contrast between the two is captured indirectly in this passage, which also shows something I want to talk about later, namely the treatment of women in these novels:
[Grijpstra] coughed and looked about him but he was alone […] De Gier’s girlfriend wasn’t so beautiful but she was certainly a remarkable woman. Lithe, and with a lovely head on a slender neck, and very quiet. He thought of his own wife and shook his head again. A pudding of flesh addicted to television and creamcakes, and bad-tempered if she could find the energy, which wasn’t so often anymore. She was given to staring at him now, nasty stares out of small bloodshot eyes, sunken into the puffy gleaming blubber which covered her skull. He breathed deeply and forced the thought to go away. He could think of his wife when he was with her, which didn’t happen so much now. (15)
The contrast of the ponderous depression of Grijpstra and his wife as it compares with De Gier’s light happiness is amplified by the instruments they play together: Grijpstra plays the drums whereas De Gier plays flute
In The Japanese Corpse this duo is called upon to investigate –you’ve guessed it– a Japanese citizen who died in Amsterdam. The body, a purveyor of priceless East-Asian art objects, is quickly connected to the Yakuza, the Japanese equivalent of the Italian maffia. With the purpose of capturing these evil individuals, the duo and their boss, the unnamed “commissaris” travel to Japan, pose as art dealers, and try to get the attention of the art-stealing yakuza boss.
Van de Wetering generously sprinkles this story with Zen references. The most random of these is perhaps the license plate number of the dead person: “66-33 MU,” where “Mu” is of course the celebrated answer Zen master Zhaozhou gave to the question of whether a dog has Buddha-nature. Here, too, we find the realities of Zen monastic life Van de Wetering already mapped in The Empty Mirror. Wondering whether life in a temple is nice, De Gier gets the following answer from the prostitute Yuiko:
The girl mockingly imitated the Buddha posture, pulling up her legs and twisting them into each other and straightening her back. She closed her eyes and pouted. De Gier admired her legs; he could see her thighs and tightly stretched slip. Her pubic hair shone through the nylon.
She opened her eyes and freed her legs.
“No,” she said, “They [monks] don’t meditate but they drink a lot.” (171)
The combination of sacred and vulgar is easily a theme of the book. Wherever someone makes supernatural statements, death, sex, or booze are somehow involved, often at the same time. Nowhere is this more true than in the satori experience of the book. Early on, De Gier loses his girlfriend and cat in a horrible traffic accident described with so much melodrama it almost seems laughable. Regardless, the commissaris observed that the event has changed De Gier, as has his stay in Japan:
De commissaris grinned in the dark. A free man, he thought, shocked out of having to carry the weight of his own identity. He had felt the sergeant’s freedom the moment de Gier had come running out of the inn to open the door of Dorin’s car and to shake the commissaris’ hand. But it’s dangerous to be free, to stop caring. (93)
The “danger” referred to here is De Gier’s angry, exaggarated response to finding two youngsters torture a cat in the street: De Gier almost kills the two, and then has to run from the police.
Later on, the narrator describes De Gier’s feelings as
nothing matters. A very strong feeling blotting out all other sensations. […] “I was a balloon,” he said aloud and turned toward the lake. A balloon, a small round bloated toy, floating about thinking it had a life and an identity of its own, until something made it pop. […] I move, he thought, and I talk and I listen and dress and undress and shave and I drive a sports car and sail a boat and maybe I’ll sleep wirh his girl before the day is over and if the daimyo’s way of playing chess differs from what I am anticipating, I may get killed today too. I dream and the daimyo dreams and our dreams touch today, but nothing is happening. I am not taking part, I have nothing to take part with.
De Gier’s detachment here is framed in terms that allude strongly to Zen Buddhism. First of all, the balloon is a well-known image for shunyata, the Mahayana notion of emptiness. The word literally refers to something being “blown up,” like a balloon. Second, De Gier’s indifference towards death conforms to the Zen-inspired Samurai code of bushido. Compare the quotation above with a popular fictionalization of this code in Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi‘s description of Japan’s most famous samurai on the way to his final duel:
[Musashi] was thinking of nothing at all. He was, if anything, a little bored.
He looked over the side of the boat at the swirling blue water. It was deep here, infinitely deep, and alive with what seemed to be eternal life. But water had no fixed, determined form. Was it not because man had a fixed, determined form that he cannot possess eternal life? Does not true life begin only when tangible form has been lost?
To Musashi’s eyes, life and death seemed like so much froth. (Yoshikawa 964)
As I’ve argued elsewhere in an analysis of this passage, such descriptions effectively connect Zen ideas with the behavior of the ideal warrior, to whom life or death make no difference because they are illusions, balloons blown up out of emptiness. Here again, Van de Wetering shows that Zen is a religion like any other, connectable to any human activity (although he prefers to connect it to the spicy ones). Thus, Zen is also the art of policing: on on page 96, a Zen master is compared to “our chief constable. Maybe we are a religious organization too, sergeant. The laws we defend were religious once, in origin anyway.”
All this brings The Japanese Corpse closer to the Suzuki of Zen and Japanese Culture: in that book, Suzuki sought to show that Zen imbued every single aspect of Japanese cultural practice, from the tea ceremony to flower arrangement. Although this assertion has little historical basis, it’s been immensely influential: the notion of “Zen” as synonymous with spiritual experience continues today, and thus also in Van de Wetering’s detective novel.
What’s worrying, though, is the extent to which experiences like Japan and Zen are accessed through stereotypical depictions of women and orientalist portrayals of the Japanese themselves. This combination is exemplified by Grijpstra and De Gier’s first discussion of Japanese tourists in their city:
“I’ve seen them in town. They march around, like mechanical men, and they all have leather cross-straps, camera on the left, light meter on the right. Gray slacks, blue blazers. But the women seem very nice, especially when they are dressed in kimonos. They shuffle. Very dainty women.”(7)
De Gier is talking here, and one might see this speech as a representation of his narrow interests in womanizing. It is hard, nevertheless, to miss the stereotype of the Japanese tourist taking photos of everything combined with that of the submissive geisha, stereotypes that continue to influence popular understandings of Japan today. But De Gier’s thinking is mirrored by that of the commissaris, who extends the robot-stereotype to another well-known image of the Japanese as children (103; the historical origins of these and other portrayals of Japan are mapped in Naoko Shibusawa’s excellent study).
Other racial stereotypes also appear in the book. Grijpstra is threatened by his supervisor to be reassigned to the “Aliens administration Department” where he “could be sitting behind a dirty desk in a stuffy room and there will be Arabs pushing documents at you, full of scribbles and rubber stamps, a hundred Arabs per day, three hundred days a year. Your fingertips will be worn down from finding index cards in battered tin boxes. You’ll be sick from the smell of garlic, and sweat, and human dirt” (99). Again, the nature of the speaker here, the “inspector” who is angry with Grijpstra, might just be an accurate representation of the world of a man in an Amsterdam police department during the 1980s.
The book’s portrayal of women, however, signals that at least some of the problems are not limited to a character’s perspectives. Women have two main functions in the novel. First, they can be obstacles: Grijpstra’s wife in the quotation above is such a one, and so was De Gier’s dead girlfriend. But they can also be tools, such as the prostitute Yuiko who leads De Gier to the Yakuza boss. Such women are almost always tools for sexual fulfillment as well. When Dorin, the Japanese sidekick for the policemen, notices that there’s a black stripper on the Yakuza entertainment program, he says: “What a spectacle, a black stripper in a Japanese castle. Our civilization is going ahead with leaps and bounds.” (260). Isolated, the comment is almost funny, a mockery of bygone Japanese ambitions for empire. But in the context of the novel, such racially charged comments reinforce empire rather than laugh at it.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Van de Wetering’s version of the “meeting of East and West.” Alluding to Rudyard Kipling’s verse “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” the commissaris comments: “It’s rubbish […] Absolute rubbish. I don’t think the twain have ever been apart” (165). This at exactly the moment De Gier departs for a Japanese brothel to gather information. Earlier, the commissaris had already been informed of prostitutes easing the way for business on the island of Deshima, the historical trading post of the Dutch with Tokugawa Japan from the 1600’s onwards. These prostitutes are called “destroyers of walls.” The commissaris comments: “Yes, our forefathers must have had a good time on this island, far removed from their nagging Dutch wives and screaming children, and cuddled by specially selected high-class prostitutes, supplied by the Japanese government, free of charge. A most interesting setup” (142).
I don’t know yet what to make of all this. But I’ll soon devote a discussion to a better book suffering from the same problems, Inspector Saito’s Small Satori, which will give me an opportunity to think through the problem further.