My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Novice is the retelling of a Vietnamese folk tale about a young monk who is repeatedly wronged, but who always does the virtuous thing. As I read this book, I thought the story seemed familiar, and I realized that I read the same story as The Martyr by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa does a much better job of story building. The Japanese writer doesn’t reveal to the reader that Lorenzo (his novice and the equivalent of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Kihn Tâm) is a female until the end—thus definitely resolving the claim that the young monk fathered a child out-of-wedlock and in contravention of vows f0r the reader at the same time as the characters in the story learn it.
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that the novice is a female at the beginning, and he does so via backstory that serves both to give justification for why Kihn Tâm chooses to disguise herself and become a monk and to pile onto the injustice. We learn that Kihn Tâm’s female alter ego had been married, but the marriage ended with a false accusation of attempted murder of her husband. This backstory probably isn’t worth the drag for either of the aforementioned purposes—but the former is more justifiable than the latter.
What Thich Nhat Hanh lacks in gripping narrative structure, he gains in provoking thought. The Zen monk and poet gives the reader insight into how Kinh Tâm manages to be preternaturally virtuous. In The Martyr this is a black box affair. Hanh also encourages the reader to see Kihn Tâm’s accusers as the novice does, i.e. with compassion. Akutagawa does what any writer would do; he vilifies the accusers so as to make the story resonate with the average, petty, martyr-complex prone reader—as opposed to the enlightenment-aspiring reader. Hanh leaves the other monks in Kinh Tâm’s corner, i.e. when everyone else is condemning the novice, they still believe in her. In Akutagawa’s story, monastics are not inherently so perfect.
The book offers some interesting back matter. The most substantial of the appendices is an account by Sister Chan Khong of the works of Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers both during the war and afterword when they tried to establish a monastery in Communist Vietnam. The essay echoes the themes of loving-kindness and compassion that form the core of the novella, as does the essay by Hanh that brings the book to a conclusion. While this back matter is filler to make up for the fact that the story is not novel length, it nevertheless makes for interesting reading.
I’d recommend this book for those with an interested in Zen. If you’re looking for a good story, read Akutagawa’s The Martyr, but if you want to be inspired to compassion, read Thich Nhat Hanh.