‘Aren’t you going back to Holland?’, asks Casper Luckerhof’s father on one of the last pages of restless to his son. “No,” she exclaims. “Of course I’m not going back to Holland with you. My place is here.’
Here it is Lumbini, the holy place in Nepal where the Buddha is said to have been born almost 2,600 years ago. Luckerhof has settled there, initially to write a biography of the Buddha, one in which he is exposed as a power-hungry cult leader, an ‘unpleasant charlatan’, also one ‘who wasn’t even sure he had existed’.
He wants that in part, but not only, to show his parents who this figure really was. Luckerhof grew up in a house full of Buddha statues with parents steeped in Buddhism. Mother especially adored anything that tasted of India and Nepal, at one point even Bhagwan. As a small child of 3, he was carried on his father’s shoulders to the Buddha’s birthplace.
For Luckerhof, the trip to Nepal in his mid-twenties is therefore both an attempt to earn his parents’ approval and more or less the opposite: an attempt to prove ‘that I can do everything all by myself’.
Which creates ambiguity restless a curious tension, a constant hint of ambition, failure and desire for meaning. It eventually leads to a loving release on the snowy Thorong La mountain pass, high in the Himalayas. That Ella Fitzgerald in the background I love Paris sings, is one of the fine details that can be picked up here and there in this ‘memoir’, as the publisher has called it.
Buddha’s biography is fast disappearing. Luckerhof accepts a job as a librarian at the Lumbini International Research Institute, a library funded by a Japanese Buddhist sect and home to more than 40,000 books on the Buddha and Buddhism.
It is the experiences – or perhaps the lack of them – in this curious institution that form the backbone of the book. The purpose of the library on earth is soon made clear to the first-person by the other members of the academic staff, which consists only of the Italian director Claudio and former director Christoph, a German Tibetologist whom Luckerhof greatly admires and who in the essential still have power. .
The goal is not to let outsiders study books, let alone lend them. After all, it is of the utmost importance, says Christoph, that no book is touched. “Only the very best Buddhists are allowed to consult our collection.” But, argues the young librarian, do academics never come to Lumbini? ‘Exactly, it makes your work very clear.’
What is the institute’s raison d’être? The answer to that question, or ‘our secret’ as Christoph calls it, is of an almost Buddhist serenity: to maintain the institution. Even if half the world goes up in flames, says the German, ‘these manuscripts and books will still be there as always’.
With this and Luckerhof’s extremely humorous description of the daily operation of the library, restless somewhat reminiscent of the famous series about the second institution. The deskbut with the self-mockery that was missing from JJ Voskuil, who after all only pissed off his colleagues.
Not so Luckerhof. He stutters, is clumsily in love and, together with his two colleagues, cultivates a daily rhythm, the highlight of which is the daily choice between eating at Hotel Kasai or eating at Hotel Hokke, where the charming Maya serves.
Meanwhile, the cataloging of the book holdings continues steadily, a task described with a sense of absurdity. The scene with the stamp (no spoilers here) is a fun highlight.
“I just want something to work here in Nepal,” sighs the librarian to his father, high up in the cold of Thorong La. “Everything has failed so far. My book on the Buddha. My job. Love. Everything.’
But not this memoir, thank God, written without literary subtleties.
Casper Luckerhof: Restless – Stranded in Buddha’s Land. Ambo Anthos; 248 pages; €22.99.