The Ronin William Dale Jennings. Tuttle 2001.
(This review first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Dharma Life magazine)
William Dale Jennings’ book The Ronin is a novel based upon a Zen myth. The story follows the changing fortunes of a freelance samurai – the ‘Ronin’ of the title – as he wanders through Japan, charting his rise to fame, his fall from grace and the strange asceticism that follows his renunciation of the sword.
The first part of The Ronin resembles nothing so much as A Clockwork Orange brush-painted on silk by a Zen master. Within the first few pages the warrior’s blade has already been wiped clean of gore countless times. No insult is too slight to deserve death, no maiden safe from the second weapon in the hero’s armoury, his ‘peasant potence,’ as Jennings calls it.
The hero eventually becomes samurai in residence at the court of a ‘lord of middle importance’, whom he eventually kills. Fleeing the wrath of the courtiers, he sets out upon the road with the Lord’s wife until, overwhelmed by the memory of his crimes, the Ronin flings away his sword and sets out anguished and alone. At last he finds for himself a new purpose as an ascetic of sorts, patiently hollowing a tunnel through the heart of a mountain, whilst the son of the Lord of Middling Importance seeks him out to wreak his revenge.
It is hard to know what to make of The Ronin. Whether running his steel through an aged monk, dividing a young swordsman head to toe with his blade, hanging a peasant girl from the ceiling by her hair and subjecting her to humiliation until she begs for sex, or repeatedly raping a noblewoman until she falls in love with his overwhelming manhood, the Ronin’s exploits are recounted with a bizarre mixture of relish and cool Zen detachment. It is hard not to believe that the author finds something admirable in such uncompromising brutality; and this, coupled with the intimation that, in this floating world, all suffering is illusory, makes for unsettling reading.
Although Jennings claims in his preface that this tale is one of those legends that contains ‘everything it is necessary to know’, it strikes me that not only does this book contain much that is unnecessary to know, but also that it may omit a great deal that is necessary. Whilst this strange, occasionally elegant, and frequently bloodthirsty work wears a mantle of great wisdom and profundity, I suspect that this too is merely samurai swagger. Bloodshed is bloodshed – and no amount of faux-Zen paradox-mongering can change that fact.