Big Sound Temple is a very different and rather charming story about a simple man who works as the gardener/janitor at a Japanese Buddhist temple. It’s written in Japenglish, something I was initially a little concerned about because I don’t usually like reading dialect. Japenglish is English written/spoken as a Japanese person with basic English would speak/write it, so it has all the grammatical faults and lack of punctuation that you’d expect. In this case however, it’s perfectly acceptable because it’s Hiro’s voice.
After an initial period of frustration with the rather stilted style, I grew accustomed to it and realised that the very fact that it slowed my reading down added to my experience of the reading as distinctly Japanese. It also expresses Hiro’s character perfectly. He is Japanese and he is as simple as his broken English makes him appear. Not simple as in stupid—though his naivety about women and finance does get him into trouble—it’s a simplicity of life style and an appreciation for what he has, a very Buddhist kind of simplicity.
Hiro is learning English and his tutor suggests that he write a book, so he does—in English. At first I wondered where the story was going, it seemed to be about the details of the life of a gardener, not of terrific interest to me. Where was the antagonist, I wondered? But then she appeared, slowly. She kind of crept up on the story and took it and Hiro’s life over. One thing led to another in a wonderful display of the workings of karma. Throughout it, Hiro remained the same simple soul with a fundamentally Japanese Buddhist outlook of kindness, doing the right thing and having an appreciation of the natural world. Hiro is not a religious man. He never mentions actually going to the services in the temple, he just works there, but his respect for the temple and what it represents is clear, and when it comes to the final events, we see exactly how Buddhist he is as heart.
I can’t say much about the end because I never saw it coming out of such an ordinary life, and I don’t want to give out spoilers, but essentially, it shows what turns an ordinary man into a hero—an unwavering goodness and a clear understanding of priorities, at least in this case. It also suggests that the good and the bad do balance out eventually.
The story builds to a gripping conclusion that includes Hiro sharing his Buddhist perception of existence, and we are left to contemplate the lessen he learns—that we never know when we are going to die.
This book is surprisingly powerful. It had a way of popping back into consciousness long after I’d closed the book. As I reflected on it, I realised how much subtlety was expressed by saying little—a very Buddhist thing to do. Well done, Mr Stevens.
I recommend the book, but don’t expect anything, or it will not fulfil your expectations. If you expect nothing, you may be delighted. I suggest reading it as you would look at a Japanese garden, the way Hiro looks at his life, with an open mind, ready to accept whatever happens or doesn’t happen.