20: THE MYSTERY NOVELS OF ELIOT PATTISON, BOOKS ON TIBETAN HISTORY
May 24, 2014
#20: THE MYSTERIES OF TIBET. A friend once said she reads mysteries to go places. We may pick up Ellis Peters’s Cadfael stories to go to fourteenth century Shropshire, as Stephen and Maud battled for the throne of England, or Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee mysteries to visit the Navajo reservations of contemporary New Mexico. The P.D. James mysteries are distinguished by her mastery of locale: an elderly-care clinic, a nuclear plant in Norfolk, publishing offices in Docklands London. Setting a series of long and elaborately plotted mysteries in contemporary Tibet surely runs the risk of trivializing the tragedies that are still happening there or getting all James Hilton and woozy and over-romanticising the culture. Eliot Pattison has done four novels in his series about Shan Tao Yun, a Beijing policeman who, as the first novel begins, has stumbled on the Party line and been sent to a Tibetan labor camp.
The first, The Skull Mantra, sets the scene and does not shy away from the gritty details. Pattison occasionally fails to make his Tibetan characters speak convincing English, but he’s harrowingly spot-on with his Chinese party-member characters: Pattison sketches an entire culture rendered ingloriously mute by the terrors of Communist politics. My favorite book, Water Touching Stone, takes Shan out of the Gulag and into the border regions where Tibetans, Kazhaks and Uighurs live amidst the remains of their ethnic cultures. I think it’s the best-shaped of his stories, and the resolution of the murders is perfect: a tragedy that becomes a thread of hope.
The third and fourth novels, Bone Mountain and Beautiful Ghosts, do not entirely escape the aroma of James Hilton—the mysticism gets a little too close to the surface and they’re too elaborately plotted—but there’s some great stuff in them, a sense particularly of how Tibet is being turned into a simulacrum of itself. I think Pattison wants to bring us, of the tragedies of Tibet, what Stephen Crane wanted to bring across of the American Civil War in The Red Badge of Courage: the faces, details and characters that don’t make it into the history books. And using a displaced Han detective as the lead character really works: we see the damaged Tibetan culture through Shan’s own deepening involvement. Some of the details are a little bit pat, but if Tibet fascinates you as it does me, give them a try. If they aren’t perfect, they’re still a contrast to something like Oracle Lake, by Paul Adam (Thomas Dunne, 2003), in which an interesting idea—the international jockeying after the death of the Dalai Lama—becomes grist for a very run-of-the-mill thriller.
For the history, you want to read In Exile from the Land of the Snows, by John Avedon, and Tsering Shakya’s The Dragon in the Land of the Snows, both very fully detailed and trustworthy. Also very much worth reading—“an image of Tibet as seen by one man,” the elder brother of the Dalai Lama—is TIBET, by Thubten Jigme Norbu and Colin M. Turnbull. Art of Tibet, by Robert E. Fisher (1997), in the invaluable Thames and Hudson World of Art series, is an inexpensive and copiously illustrated introduction to the topic; if you have a little more to spend, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet,, by Marilyn M. Rhie and Robert A.F. Thurman (Harry Abrams, 1991) is the most beautiful book on Tibetan art I’ve seen, with especially good reproductions and text. Of the many accounts of post-invasion Tibet, perhaps the most moving, vivid and readable is Patrick French’s Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land (Vintage Departures, 2003), which conveys more than any other book how the misery of Tibet happened, and continues to happen, one person at a time; it also encapsulates a lot of historical information. Prisonersof Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Chicago, 1998) is a wily, earthbound and informative book on the distortive Western romanticisation of Tibetan culture. The Search for the Panchen Lama, by Isabel Hilton (Norton, 1999) is an informative and damning account of the Chinese government’s abduction of a child incarnate lama—still a central and unresolved issue in Tibetan politics. All worth reading.
P.S.: There are now four more Shan Tao Yun novels, Prayer of the Dragon (Soho Crime, 2008), The Lord of Death (Soho, 2009), Mandarin Gate (Minotaur, 2012) and Soul of the Fire (Minotaur, 2014). Prayer of the Dragon shares the faults (overelaborated plot, the whiff of Shangri-lamaism) and the virtues (immersion in and feel for the Tibetan setting and culture) of the earlier entries, and Shan holds his own as a still-interesting protagonist. Prayer of the Dragon involves the intersection of two ethnic groups, and if you pick it up, don’t read the cover blurb, which blows the first fourth of the plot. Bad bad blurb writers. No momos. Lord of Death, set around the base camp at Everest, streamlines both the storytelling (though Lord knows the plot is still mazy enough) and the romanticism a bit but captures subtly the shift in feeling after the 2008 Olympic protests—this Tibet is a few steps further along in its process of becoming, among other things, China’s tourist cash cow. The plot revolves around the 1950s covert involvement of the U.S. in the Tibetan struggle for freedom and keeps twisting until the final chapter. For a historical study of the novel’s background, read Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival, by John Kenneth Knaus (Public Affairs, 1999.)
With Mandarin Gate we begin with the ominous opening—“The end of time was beginning in Tibet.”—and follow it into an ever-darkening sense of how Tibetan culture is being blotted out, not just by the cruelties of the rule from Beijing, but by the deaths of its elders. Here again the plot is labyrinthine—I’m not sure I caught all of it—but there are moving scenes throughout (the meeting of Shan with his imprisoned son), one great blasphemous moment when Shan hammers in the face of a statue of the Great Helmsman, and the ecstatic end scene, when the nomads are restored to their grazing lands. Soul of the Fire continues the theme—the end of time—and is built around the events that have most recently brought Tibet into the news: the self-immolation of Tibetan monks and nuns protesting Chinese rule. Here especially, these tragedies being used in a mystery novel could have seemed offensive and exploitative; Pattison instead has treated them with real empathy and diginity. The death poems—original, or adapted? I’m not sure—are powerful, the situation of Tibet is that much further down its dreadful path, and Pattison has again kept current to great effect. Warts and all, I wouldn’t want to miss these stories.
P.P.S. And now (2019), a ninth and tenth Shan Tao Yun novel, Skeleton God and Bones of the Earth (Minotaur Books), which will conclude the series. It was hard to see where Pattison could go after the intensity of Soul of theFire, which I think one of the best of the series, but with Skeleton God he moves Shan further into his involvement with the “Ferals”—the nomadic holdouts who live a traditional existence, but unregistered with the Chinese government, and always at threat. Here and in Bones of the Earth, Pattison does a good deal to resolve Shan’s relationship with his son Ko, and even with his nemesis, Colonel Tan. Over the extent of the series Tan has evolved into a combination of someone attempting to do the right thing but who harbors a dangerous temper and sense of territory—who indeed defeats his challengers by feeding them to a still more ferocious echelon member, a reminder of why the Chinese nation is personified by a dragon. Shan once again lands, with a bump of course, on his feet, and comes to a resting point; the tragedies of the Chinese presence in Tibet continue. Both books are worthy additions to the series.