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The Search for Happiness and Identity
on May 16, 2013
John Burdett's Vulture Peak: Crime, Corruption, and the Search for Happiness and Identity
By Dr. Robert C. Covel
When I first learned of the title of John Burdett's novel Vulture Peak, I emailed the author and asked him if the title had any significance because the Heart Sutra, one of the Buddha's most important sermons took place on Vulture Peak. Mr. Burdett's response was a rather cagey response: "That's a very astute question . . . . I'll leave it to you to decide when you've read it." I took his response as a challenge, and I have read the novel more than once, considering the possible levels of meaning. My efforts were rewarded, and this essay is my response to his challenge.
Vulture Peak (2012) is John Burdett's fifth crime novel with the protagonist Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a half- American, half Thai policeman from Bangkok. His father was an American GI, and his mother is a retired prostitute and now madam of a brothel in Bangkok. In Vulture Peak, as in the other novels in the series, Sonchai is faced with a world of drugs, violence, corruption, and the sex trade. Vulture Peak focuses on the black market world of trafficking in human organs, and Sonchai's investigations involve him in a massive global conspiracy that provides human organs by any means necessary for those rich enough to pay.
The plot synopsis sounds sordid and grim. While Burdett certainly provides enough of the disturbing details of human degradation, this novel (like Burdett's others) demonstrates levels of meaning, thought, and even humor that the reader would not expect. In particular, Burdett infuses his novels with strong currents of Buddhist philosophy and ethics. The novel Vulture Peak in particular has subtle levels of meaning that repay the reader willing to reread the novel and to consider the deeper themes.
The novel's title on the most literal level comes from the name of the lavish estate at the top of a mountain. Many of the novel's most gruesome events take place at the estate, especially the harvesting of human organs, so the vulture image, with its images of scavenging, is appropriate. However, anyone with a background in Buddhism recognizes the allusion to the Heart Sutra. John Burdett's elusive response to my question about his title led me to explore that level of significance.
The Heart Sutra challenges the Western concept of existence and identity, showing that the concepts and ideas that lead us to a sense of self and existence are delusions based on flawed perceptions. In Buddhism, the concept of the self is composed of the Skhandhas: Form (matter), Sensation (feeling), Perception (conception), Mental Formations (impulses), and Consciousness (discernment). the Heart Sutra demonstrates that all of these aggregates of energy are constantly flowing and changing. Thus, the concept of the Self as a constant is a delusion based on mere appearances and faulty assumptions. That delusion causes most of the world's suffering, as is explained in the Four Noble Truths.
Burdett's novel demonstrates in a powerful and often disturbing way the truth of those delusions about the nature of existence. One of the most basic ways in which we believe ourselves to exist is based on our physical appearance. We identify ourselves with our bodies, and the component parts thereof. In a novel about the trafficking of human organs, that delusion is quickly shattered, and, like a mirror, its shattering destroys the image of self. Sonchai is investigating instances in which bodies (some of which have been murdered for this explicit purpose) are taken apart like jigsaw puzzles, and the parts (livers, corneas, hearts, and even genitals and faces) are removed to be sold. The scenes in which the organs are removed and displayed are especially disturbing, perhaps because of our strong associations of body parts with identity. That association is probably especially true in the case of genitals and faces. The surgically removed genital references in the novel are understandably disturbing.
Perhaps the most disturbing scene in the novel (at least for me) occurs toward the end of the novel. A character named Manu has been horribly mutilated to the extent of not having a face. He has been promised a transplant in return for his gruesome services (this part of the book recalls the movie Frankenstein and the character Igor for me). In this scene in Burdett's novel, Manu is trying on surgically removed faces like masks. Chan, one of the characters, says, "'He's learned that without a face, he doesn't exist." As Manu tries on different faces, he attempts to take on the identity of the former owner, including the face of woman, and he "pirouettes and poises coquettishly." This grotesque and surreal scene demonstrates the delusion of existence from a Buddhist perspective. the scene recalls a Zen Koan "What is your true face?" And of course the answer is that one does not have a true face because one does not have a true identity.
A related theme in the novel, which is related to the search for identity, is the search for happiness. That secondary theme is portrayed most vividly by Dorothy, an emotionally and sexually repressed Western (Farang) woman who is directing Sonchai's wife Chanya's master's thesis about the women involved in the sex trade. When Linda is explaining her search for happiness, Chanya explains that, as a Buddhist, she doesn't think that way. Linda then calls the Western "pursuit of happiness" (quoting the Declaration of Independence) as "A kind of Godot thing right at the center of the American mind." Of course, since the Self does not existence except as a flowing interwoven stream of Skhandhas, happiness is also an illusion.
The search for identity and the quest for happiness are central concepts in the Western mindset. John Burdett's novel Vulture Peak weaves a convoluted and interesting plot around characters as they explore those themes. While John Burdett is a master at writing the "Whodunit," his novels go far beyond mere detective fiction and become philosophical meditations on ontology and epistemology. Like everything else is the world, his novels are not always what they seem.