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Review: The Buddha of Ballyhuppahaun by Johnny Renko

AN article in The Hot Press in 1994 saw journalist John Whelan give a dashing account of his time among the Rainbow People gathering in former Yugoslavia. He spoke of digging latrines, campfire sing-alongs and a fierce ecological sensibility that sometimes superseded practical considerations.

Those experiences, as well as those from the Rainbow gathering the previous year in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, are poured into this breezy and undulating modern fable that encourages the imagination to laugh. Writing under the nom de plume Johnny Renko, The Buddha of Ballyhuppahaun sees the journalist and Labour candidate for Laois/Offaly subtly set to work on the conscience.

Whelan is initially cryptic, warping time spheres, geographical settings and cultural references. We are introduced to the titular Buddha and his sidekick Dodo. Both are wanderers, philosophising away heartily with an assortment of characters on everything from food to surfing to GAA. They join up with a merry band of Rainbow People, each colourfully and exhaustingly catalogued to evoke a sense of variety.

The story winds around to a great mission facing the Buddha. The nemesis of all he and his community cherish is mounting a war to seize hold of fresh drinking water resources. The Dong, as Whelan names him, represents "the man", hungry for power and willing to plunder Mother Nature in pursuit of it. The author uses Orwellian undertones in depicting what is at stake should the Buddha fail to thwart the enemy and the earth deteriorate into "the littered Dongdom".

This is all for our education, but obliquely so. A foreword by Professor Jim Whelan explains that a combination of a rising population, peak oil and limiting water resources is a very real equation that is "not even decades away".

We may know all this, but Whelan has a fresh and engaging approach to getting the message through. He veils the Earth's plight in spiritual and mythological layers. By crashing Eastern philosophy into references to X Factor, Woody Allen and rock 'n' roll, Whelan asks the mind to break into a canter rather than passively read a story. The reader must dwell on and decode the symbols and signifiers, and moments for you to stop and do so are provided. This is a fable, after all, and to move minds, Whelan first gets the imagination grooving. He is a playful and musical storyteller, prone to bouts of rampant alliteration and lexical mischief.

As Renko would probably phrase it, the way to get people to see sense is through the senses, most of which are encouraged to fire off regularly throughout the text. Surfing, a major passion for author and protagonist, is poetically painted, the prose flowing and tumbling as rhythmically as his beloved waves.

Despite its breadth of palette, mentions of Jackie Healy-Rae, Sean Og O hAilpin and the odd cupla focal make this an essentially Irish affair. You can't help but feel, however, that Whelan, Renko and the Buddha could herald a new way for literature to call our inner eco-warrior to arms.

Sunday Indo Living