The Oarsman is simultaneously a fantasy/adventure novel and a literary work of art with gems of spiritual wisdom sprinkled throughout.
The story takes us on a journey in the time of knights and dragons with an 80-year old Man who recently lost his beloved wife and now wants to reach the “promised shores” he has heard sung of all his life. An Oarsman is taking him down river toward his goal until they meet a Judge standing on an island, who won’t let him pass.
He is sent back to review his life: “If you come back more worthy, learned from your mistakes, you will be free to pass.”
What follows is a beautifully written account of a Man witnessing all the roles he has played in his life, from an Artist to a Merchant to a Dreamer, a Warrior, an Apprentice, a Boy and an Infant. The vile critical voice of the Judge appears in various forms from a dragon to a whirlpool in the river to sabotage the Man, in opposition to the help offered by the Oarsman to this Man so in need of rescue.
The Man must find from where his dissatisfaction with life and critical inner voice came. What he learns along the way, with the help of the ever-wise Oarsman, is to focus on life’s bright spots instead of ruminating over his unworthiness. Can he return to the purity of the newborn and see the love that makes him worthy?
Anyone who has ever experienced self-judgment or doubt about the meaning of one’s life will find this magical fantasy a revelation in how we bring about our own misery, and how we can instead see the value of our life’s experiences.
Using beautiful imagery in which all of nature is alive and involved with the Man’s journey, author Zubin Mathai has transformed an age-old theme, of reviewing our life at its end, into an inspiring adventure teaching that we are all worthy at our core.
AUTHOR INTERVIEW WITH ZUBIN MATHAI
What message you would like readers to take away from THE OARSMAN?
The lesson that the main character takes away, which hopefully the reader does too, is that there is a force of silence and truth, coming from love, that has been with us our entire lives. It has been there during the good and bad times, and whether we cover it up or not with mind-stuff, it still has the power to lead us through each destiny arc in each section of our life.
What would you say is the major spiritual theme of THE OARSMAN?
Apart from the main message, the other spiritual theme in The Oarsman, is that unworthiness — even though most of us grapple with it — is not real. Our belief in it prevents us from stepping fully into our personal paradises of peace. Whether that unworthiness manifests as guilt over the past, or as a hesitation to step into the future, it is all the same: only a mind pattern that is too afraid to let love in fully in all its forms.
Are the roles of your main character a reflection of experiences in your own life?
Yes. All the roles in the book are roles that I have gone through (albeit modern equivalents). For example, the Merchant, obsessed with riches and celebration, was me running an Internet business and getting caught up in material things. The Sage trying to climb the mountain was me in my youth, when I went to the Himalayas to meditate. The lesson I learned from that time was that I was always creating ‘mountains’ in my mind, things I had to climb before I could feel fulfillment. It was only years later that I saw that that fulfillment is our birthright, and we only cover it up with doubt and fear.
The river is an important metaphor in your book, and has been used by many others as metaphors in their novels. What meaning do you give the river in your work?
In the book, the river represents a few different things. It represents the winding of life as well as truth and love. The reader also soon sees that the river and the Oarsman character are two sides of the same coin. For the main character, the Man, before he learns his lesson, he co-opts the river and twists it a bit, turning it into a river that winds through his past so that he can revisit it.
You give life to all of nature in your story, e.g., “The trees wept leaves at the beauty heard….” Do you see everything as alive, aware and responsive as do shamans?
I see a Oneness infusing everything. When I was younger, I thought the mind had to be quiet to see it, but now I see that energy even behind and in thoughts. When I hike (my favorite activity) I feel that my body and tree trunks are no barriers to the sameness in everything around. When I get still (even if thoughts are whispering for attention) there is no me or trees, just that Oneness. And then the physical form of the trees, the way their bark catches the sun, or how their leaves play with wayward breezes, becomes the best celebration in this moment of that Oneness.
What drew you to write a novel in the fantasy genre?
I started writing The Oarsman to excise all my past roles from my heart. I felt that I had learned my lessons from them and it was okay to treasure their coming and going, but not hold on too tight anymore. So, when I started thinking about the book, and about my close connection to nature, immediately an image of a river passing through a wooded land sprung to mind. Since I wanted the narrative voice to be quite poetic in this novel, a fantasy setting felt very appropriate.
You have a unique voice – what do you think is the source of your poetic style?
I’m not quite sure. I think I always had this style, even as a child. I do notice that the more quiet I get when writing, then the style comes out fully. If I could go off on a related tangent: I once had a dream, wherein I was crying over the beauty of the empty space on my driveway. Something about that space, being so devoid of form and yet full of potential, made me love it as the universe. When I woke up, I realized that if could love sentences as much as the love I felt in that dream, then that is the best I could ever do as a writer. So, when I treat paragraphs and sentences with that tenderness, my style seems to come out stronger.
What writers or books have influenced you in your work?
I’m a bit of an oddity of a writer, in that I haven’t read a novel in over twenty years! I usually read non-fiction, biographies, and sometimes snippets of poetry. People have said my book reminds them of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, but I purposely didn’t read that book when I was writing my novel. I am more influenced by visual medium like film, and seeing beautiful imagery and well-constructed plots does leave impressions on me. My new year’s resolution for 2017 is to read more fiction!