Humorist Robert Benchley once said that “The free-lance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.” Maybe we should add “perplexed,” too, in the case of Oliver Broudy, an American journalist who — spurred on by the “claustrophobic statusphere” of New York — skipped the leap-of-faith stage to take an impulsive and uncharted lunge tantamount to a “grubby gesture of existential defiance” when he signed on to accompany and chronicle, in the eBook The Saint, the spirituality erratic collector James Otis’ international apology tour (they’re not just for U.S. Presidents anymore!).
After James triggered a controversy by putting up for auction some of Mahatma Gandhi’s belongings in March 2009, the 45-year old gentle giant, a millionaire several times over and heir to a few family fortunes such as the Otis elevator riches, felt the need not only to express regret but also to make amends personally for unwittingly offending Indian sentiments. In addition, he wanted to make clear that money generated from the auction would go to organizations promoting Gandhian values.
“This is going to be an adventure,” James prognosticates. “I have a feeling both of us are going to be very different after this.” Certainly we see the changes and strains upon Broudy, who sees loyalty as “the last sure bulwark against confusion and despair,” as his duties expand beyond the chronicling of the trip and its tribulations. Indeed, he steps in more and more to take on the role of confidant, PR agent, and travel guide – responsibilities that assume more magnitude as James gets more frazzled during a 23-day fast undergone in a bid for atonement and attention, to be halted only upon the say-so of the Dalai Lama. After all, figures Broudy, the saintliness James strives for demands an extreme nature rather than a practical one.
At the same time, Oliver Broudy has to concede that no matter how skewed James’ thinking is, how naïve or wrong-headed his “indifference to reality,” it amounts to some irreconcilable differences whereby his variety of nonviolent action allows for such head-scratchers as negotiation with dictators; the overthrowing of a government for half a million dollars “so every celebrity [would] fund one”; and simultaneous, multilateral 50 percent cut in military budgets worldwide. At the same time, however, Broudy has come to admire the fact that people seem more human around the affable James. The world he lived in was completely different: “Where mine was grubby, bent, and only occasionally limned with radiance,” Broudy states, “his was like something out of a fairy tale, where every cab was a crystal chariot, and every man a prince.”
Let’s flesh this out more psychologically and philosophically, though. To a conscientious Broudy, loyalty has always been the last sure bulwark against disorder and desolation, and despite how much James exasperated him, he did not want to fail the man he admired, a man whose “vortex of … ego was beginning to suck everything in.” If he couldn’t figure out a way to stop him, the starving man would end up devouring everybody.
James could be voracious in other ways, too. “There is an avatar of the Buddha called Avalokitesvara,” observes Tenzin, a leading Tibet activist and intermediary to the Dalai Lama. “When Avalokitesvara saw all the suffering in the universe — the sickness, old age, anger, hatred — he wanted to help so badly that he was pulled in many different directions, until his two arms became a thousand, with an eye on every hand.” This is the motivation, Tenzin continued, in drawing the parallel: “You see? He wants to do so much, and how much ever he does, there are still millions more to help.”
If it’s Tuesday, then, this must be bedlam. Broudy’s insightful characterizations, including a wallop of James’ innate sense of spotlight theatrics, self-aggrandizement (he stretched the exaggerations, let alone played fast and loose with the truth), and grab-‘n’-go narrative, perfectly captures the fast-moving adventure and humor that mark the chaos of events as they ensue on the ePage. But set against the backdrop of the Dhauladhar mountains of northern India and the borderlands of Tibet, the account’s characters taking their cue include snidely-whiplashian Chinese agents, the riled-up descendents of Mahatma Gandhi, and ultimately the Dalai Lama himself. But interspersed with the suspense and insight, Broudy slows down at times to offer up some evocative scene-stealing vibrancy and mountain greenery, such as illustrated in this passage depicting the Dalai Lama’s hometown:
“Wild dogs loped the alleys, or curled like cats in sheltered doorways, often in pairs, nose to nose. Strange birds accented the silence, and the cedars bore the endless rain like mules. With its narrow streets and irregular, brightly painted houses, the place had a pleasing proportion to it. It was very walkable. But then not everything was human-sized. The valley yawned on one side, and the snowy peaks of the Dhauladhar range loomed on the other. It seemed far preferable to poke along in the shadow of a mountain than a throng of skyscrapers, somehow. Comparable in scale, the effect was opposite: Where one served as a daily reminder of humanity’s genius, the other dismissed it with a geologic shrug. Not even James’s megalomania could thrive here, for long.”
But if The Saint is a success in imparting a sense of place, a focus is also set on the transformation of the narrator of this indelible fusion of profile, true adventure, and travelogue that passes along to the author “a new cartography” by which “On James’s map, “borders were good only for being ignored.” Indeed, one of the qualities by which Broudy had established the yearned-for recognition of a saint – he actually had given this some methodical thought – is that They challenge what you are prepared to believe. In this regard, James is the “anti-explorer” who turned known worlds back into wilderness. And even though at times James “might have been drifting past that final border — the one that separates reason from insanity — the image of that wilderness stayed with me.”
To be sure, you can take the boy out of the claustrophobic statusphere, but maybe you can also take the claustrophobic statusphere out of the boy…