In her second foray into fiction, renowned scholar, Liza Dalby explores a little known aspect of Japanese tradition and uses it (with creative some license) as the backdrop for a tale of intrigue. Hidden Buddhas: A Novel of Karma and Chaos focuses on hibutsu, sacred Buddhist images that are rarely (if ever) put on display, and which in the novel hold supernatural powers. Hibutsu are unique to Japan – set up by the renowned monk, Kukai, as a protection against mappo, the end of days. This secret has been passed down through a single line of priests, but even under guardianship someone or something is snuffing out the power of the hibutsu, one by one.
Hidden Buddhas does not rely on a single protagonist, engaging an ensemble cast instead with the hibutsu serving as the unifying element. The story is told through the eyes of about a dozen characters – the guardian, a French scholar, his American protégé, a fashion designer, a film maker and others – all of whom are not only interested in these images but are also intertwined through a series of personal connections as well. The interactions of the characters add depth to the story, but the driving force is the mystery of what is causing the destruction of the hibutsu and the consequences of their loss. As we follow these characters, Dalby shifts perspective constantly – often several times in a given chapter. The story unfolds over three continents and spans several decades, which enhances the scope of the human experience.
While the concept reminds one of a Dan Brown novel, the execution of Hidden Buddhas is much more thought-provoking and less frenetic. Dalby’s scholarship shines in her exploration of themes: tradition vs. modernity; East vs. West; Japaneseness; interconnectedness. She also takes great joy in describing Japan, especially the clothing, enriching the reading experience. The lack of a central character only emphasizes the Buddhist underpinnings. Dalby may not be a great fiction writer, but she knows her material and in Hidden Buddhas has created a wonderfully interesting take on Japan, Buddhism and the human condition.