1544 A fascinating dance of ideas
Jonas and the Mountain: A Metaphysical Love Story
by Janis Harper
Reviewed by Margaret Miller
An eastern mystic and western psychic walk into a bar…
Not too much surprises me these days, but this book did, in the best possible way. Jonas and the Mountain: A Metaphysical Love Story is one of the most original and compelling books I have read in many years. As the subtitle suggests, this is a story about ideas and the love of ideas – a plunge into the deep pool of questions like “Who Am I?” and “What Is Truth?” But it is also a story about love for a guru, for a mountain, as well as a boy-meets-girl love story. There is a lot going on here.
To write Jonas and the Mountain, Janis Harper draws on her life-long love of the creative arts, metaphysics, spirituality, and philosophy. On the back cover, Jonas is described as “the truest work she’s ever written.” It is also a work of great heart and intellectual courage.
The structure of Jonas involves interweaving narratives of two main characters, Jonas and Anamika. These narratives echo each other at meaningful junctures and reveal the two central philosophies in the novel — eastern non-dualism and a unique metaphysics — as well as the evolving mystery of who Jonas and Anamika are to each other.
Jonas, a Vancouverite, is broken-hearted and confused. Over a short period of time he has lost his wife, best friend, and his job as a college English instructor. His relationship with his father is shaky. He has also begun writing automatic poetry, not to mention hearing a voice: “Where are you now?” “I am here.” “I am here too.” Hoping to make sense of what is going on and open to making big changes in his life, he decides to take his friend Bruce up on his offer to travel to Mt. Arunachula, in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu.
Anna is also from Vancouver. When she was eleven years old she experienced a profound spiritual awakening: “Anna was not in time and space. She was not in her body. Dimensions appeared and disappeared. She glimpsed infinity.” Anna somehow manages to survive her tumultuous adolescence and early adulthood, hiding from the world that “she knew everything.” But the pressure of having this knowledge was enormous while trying to live a life that was, at least on the surface, conventional. She yearned for a community where her insights would not be seen as strange and even threatening, a place where she could fit in and be her authentic self, and so gets on a plane for the holy mountain of Arunachala.
Arunachula is most famous as the place where the twentieth century south Indian saint Sri Ramana Maharshi lived much of his life and offered his teachings. The mountain is not just a geological feature – it was Ramana’s guru. Arunachula, which is literally magnetic (it is made of iron ore), continues to draw multitudes of seekers. Jonas and the Mountain primarily unfolds here and in the surrounding town of Tiruvannamalai (“‘Tiru’ for short”).
Once in India, Jonas’s life begins to change even more dramatically. After a profound encounter with Arunachula he attends a retreat and falls in love with a guru known by the single initial, D. D is in the lineage of Ramana Maharshi, and through Jonas’s encounter with him we learn something about the philosophy of non-dualism, which says that “we live in a world of subject and object, duality, where we think we are separate from each other and the world.” If we can see through this illusion the ego loses its hold, and the dream of separation begins to dissolve. The “small ‘s’ self” becomes the “big ‘S’ self” – often described in terms like “God, or All That Is, Source, Consciousness.” Ramana teaches that the route to seeing through illusion is self-enquiry; the question to be asked is, “Who Am I?”
When Anna arrives in Tiru she lives on the streets in the company of a holy man. He names her Anamika – which means “the nameless one.” After they separate she wanders, slowly losing her attachment to the world while feeling more authentic and falling more in love with Arunachula. During this period, animals begin gathering around her. One day two young Germans arrive at her doorstep, saying they want to talk to “the woman who drew the creatures to her.” When she asks what they want her to talk about, they reply, “What you know.”
Teaching to increasingly large crowds, Anamika’s topics include death, reincarnation, the body and illness, dreams, partner selves, space travel, and multi-dimensionality. She is not attached to a particular doctrine or teacher but is unique, spontaneous, and creative — though there is overlap between some of her ideas and quantum physics and “new age” thinking. Her methods for arriving at self-awareness draw on the creative arts, especially writing, drawing, dancing and singing.
Jonas and the Mountain presents readers with a “Walked into a bar” scenario: “What happens when an eastern mystic and western psychic walk into a bar”? Big and complex questions are asked, such as, is there something out there, or is it all in here and only reflected out there? Do we need a teacher or guru, or can we rely on our own inner wisdom? Is your body something “alien,” or is it “you”? These kinds of questions make for a fascinating deep dive into the worlds of philosophy and metaphysics, with Jonas struggling to reconcile the perspectives of the guru D and Anamika.
Careful reading of the book will also reveal many treasures below the surface. For example, there are numerous references to the Romantic poets (including but not limited to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”). These references bring to mind the Romantic assumption that the human mind has a basic need to create a unity – ecstatic moments often associated with mystics but which are available to all of us through states like listening to music and falling in love. An attentive reading of the text reveals other such gems and facets to ponder, for example, Why are the teachers Anamika and D both essentially nameless? Why does Jonas appear to be writing this very book in one of the novel’s metafictional turns? (Indeed, “Discuss Jonas and the Mountain: A Metaphysical Love Story as a work of metafiction” would be a great topic for a university-level English Literature class!)
In a book of ideas like this one, Jonas and the other characters could easily have become coat-hangers on which to dangle bundles of ideas, but this is not the case. The characters of Jonas and Anamika, as well as the minor characters, are well rounded and their dilemmas and actions are psychologically convincing – their seeking after truth uncovers deeply embedded personal issues, meaning the characters’ personal psychology and spirituality are not separate.
The plot of Jonas is organized around a five-part interrelated structure that links the five Hindu elements – earth, fire, sound, water, and air – to themes that facilitate the presentation of the ideas Harper explores. In addition, the interweaving narratives and poetic use of repetition give the reader a window into Jonas and Anamika’s mysterious relationship.
Harper’s writing style is very clear and quite beautiful. This is especially true in sections depicting mystical experiences and a particularly rapturous sex scene. Readers will appreciate her evocative depictions of the dusty chaos of Indian streets and life, as well as her explanations of Anamika’s intriguing teachings and methods. Anamika’s talks are indexed in a “Subject Guide” and her exercises included in an appendix for the reader’s use.
As the book draws to a close there is a wonderful sense of optimism. Jonas’s struggle to find the truth is resolved in a stunning fashion. All of the characters have experienced, at least to some degree, emotional growth and a widening perspective. The story ends on a deeply positive note.
Readers who enjoy lively writing, a well-drawn plot and characters, and a fascinating dance of ideas will find this book entrancing.
Margaret Miller lives with her cat in Vancouver. She has an undergraduate degree in English Literature and graduate degrees in Religious Studies and Theology. She has published essays dealing with nature, theology, and the arts.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster