It takes considerable literary courage to present, through fictional characters, an exploration and explication of the search for spiritual enlightment. Andrew Harvey, in his brief (150 pages) narrative, "One Last Mirror," attempts that daunting task in an unusual, almost bizarre, manner.
A scholar, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, a professor of Shakespeare who has also taught in American colleges, Harvey has published seven collections of poems in England, the most recent of which, "No Diamonds, No Hats, No Honey," will appear in the United States at the same time as "One Last Mirror." In this, his first work of fiction, his approach is as daring as his choice of characters and theme. He writes from inside the mind of Savi, a 70-year-old Sri Lankan woman, a Buddhist, a disappointed and angry creature trying to make sense of the horrors of her own life and to face -- or outface -- her fear of death.
Living in Savi's house is one of her daughters, Padma, an untalented sculptor, and Padma's lover, Helen, an English poet. When Helen asks Savi if she may invite a guest for a visit and describes the 25-year-old Englishman she had known at Cambridge, Savi replies, "We need a man in this house of mad women, even if he is a purple-shirted professionally tortured homosexual poet."
It is with the arrival of David that "the last and strangest part of my life began." Even his appearance is a surprise. "I had expected a thin hysteric with a gangly walk and effeminate gestures: long hair, over-decorated sandals that Westerners love; the medallion of some latest guru, an odour of sweat and sandalwood." David is neat, short-haired, well-mannered and good-looking, but still he fits one aspect of the stereotype Savi describes. He is, indeed, on a quest for spiritual salvation. For him Sri Lanka is a way station where he will visit the Buddhist sites before he goes on to India in search of a guru.
Savi tells the story of the evolving relationship between David and herself through recollected conversations between them, interspersed with passages of autobiography, accounts of dreams, fables, tales she heard as a child, snatches of philosophy and poetry. Their dialogues are of an unremitting intensity, starting on a note of thorny, hostile wariness and gradually, as they exchange more and more of their feelings and experiences, displaying concern, trust and even love.
The cosmic despair that afflicts both of them has also, in each case, had a personal focus. For David it is the conviction that he has driven a young man mad by demanding from him a physical enactment of their love. For Savi it is the guilt she feels for having contributed, through a lack of compassion, to her husband's suicide. David has reacted by renouncing his former manner of living and thinking in order to search for the Buddha's Nirvana as the only solution to the chaos around and within him. Savi, who was once beautiful, rich and envied, and is now old, fat and relatively poor, has, in spite of her Buddhist upbringing, rejected the possibility of spiritual transformation. She remembers shouting at her pious, dying mother, "I don't want Nirvana! I want to be wicked and live!" She remembers, too, her own behavior when she learned that her husband had young male lovers, how she refused to sleep with him, deprived him of the company of his daughters, and when, two nights before his death he had come to her for comfort, had said, "You are disgusting to me. Get out." It all leaves her entrenched in bitterness and self-contempt.
On a trip to the great Buddhist ruins of Polonnaruwa, David has his first moment of spiritual vision, of seeing the "truth I must follow." Before describing that moment, David gives a beautifully worded account of the crystal morning when he walked through the grass and the butterflies under the old trees, between the dagobas and the statues until he comes to a ruined figure of Buddha. "And as I watched him, feeling there was some pact between us, some ancient force that had drawn me to him through the dew and chattering monkeys, the light fell in a band across his eyes. For that moment nothing else existed . . . only that white brilliance, those eyes finding me out and fixing me." He feels a tremendous sense of release, as though the "black rock" he had always carried had suddenly crumbled away.
Savi recognizes this as a crucial experience, hears the joy in his voice, but sees that it also means she will lose David, whom she has come to love. Now he will go to India to find his guru. At first she is consumed with jealousy and resentment; later she suggests they make that spiritual journey together. Finally she realizes that it can only be made alone and that she too must be brave enough to look in the "last mirror" and accept that it reflects nothing, offers no comforting assurance of one's importance or even of one's existence.
At the end of the book Savi quotes a Japanese poem:
When, with breaking heart
This world is only a dream
The oak tree looks radiant.
She feels she is beginning to know what it means, is slowly learning to look at her life and her death without fear.
"One Last Mirror" illustrates the old truism about religious faith: if you have it, no explanation is necessary; if you haven't, no explanation is possible. It leaves unanswered the perhaps unanswerable question about how to acquire that faith.