The Buddha of Brewer Street
by Michael Dobbs (London, Harper Collins 1998), 375 pp, ISBN 0-00-649798-5
Review by Bill Gent
There are many ways of learning about the dynamics of religion in individual and group life. Undoubtedly, one of the most fruitful ways is through novels.
One has only to think of the novels (once dubbed 'religious thrillers') of the Australian author and Roman Catholic, Morris West. Who can forget the process through which the Roman Catholic Church tests the validity of a candidate for sainthood after reading The Devil's Advocate (1959)? Or, again, the process of 'electing' the next pontiff after reading The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963)?
Again, if one wants to 'dig deep' into the world of Jewish Hasidism, the novels of Chaim Potok offer an unforgettable opportunity. Such 'obscure' matters as the role of the Tzaddik (leader) in particular Hassidic communities and the use of gamatria (mystical speculation based on the numerical equivalents of the Hebrew letters) all come alive in novels such as The Chosen (1967) and its sequel The Promise (1969).
Though not of the same quality as the above two writers, Michael Dobbs – perhaps best known for his first novel House of Cards which was serialised on television – tells a tale in The Buddha of Brewer Street which is both gripping and informative.
The story revolves around activities following the death of the Dalai Lama. (Typically, when Dobbs asked the real Dala Lama for permission to write about his death, the Tibetan leader in exile simply laughed.)
Tibetan Buddhist belief is such, of course, that it would be expected that the Dalai Lama would be reborn as a child. This child would, from a very young age, exhibit certain behaviours which would be 'recognisable' to the knowing searcher. But, given that Tibet has been occupied by China for half a century and that the Dalai Lama and his 'clique' are regarded as dangerous subversives by the Chinese, such a search would have political as well as religious significance. Out of such tension, Dobbs constructs his novel which involves not only Buddhism and international politics but also parliamentary and diplomatic intrigue as well as sexual encounter.
All in all, then, this would be a good school holiday read for the exhausted teacher with an interest in both politics and religion.
Review by Bill Gent, Redbridge Advisory and Inspection Service, July 2000
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