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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Monks and Mayhem in Tibet

December 4, 2007

By Patrick Anderson,

Washington Post
Monday, December 3, 2007; C04


By Eliot Pattison

Soho. 362 pp. $24

This is the fifth in Eliot Pattison's highly praised series about Shan
Tao Yun, a Chinese national in exile in Tibet. Shan was once a senior
investigator for the Chinese government, but when he made the mistake of
probing high-level corruption, he was sent to a prison camp. There he
became close to Tibetan monks who were imprisoned for their beliefs, and
since his release has lived with and tried to protect the monks. This
novel has two dramas in progress. In the foreground, Shan tries to solve
a series of murders on and around the sacred mountain called Sleeping
Dragon. But this investigation is set against the larger drama of an
ancient, highly pacific and spiritual society fighting to survive the
brutal Chinese occupation.

At the outset, the two monks whom Shan most reveres summon him to the
village of Drango, where two men have been murdered and a third is in a
coma. The village headman, or boss, who is a stooge of the Chinese,
wants to avoid controversy by calling the unconscious man the murderer
and executing him. Shan insists on an investigation, which takes him up
Sleeping Dragon Mountain, where the murders occurred. The hands of both
victims, for reasons that are not clear, were cut off. Shan soon
discovers the sacred mountain is more crowded than one might expect.
Outlaw miners are searching for gold. A retired Chinese scientist lives
in an ancient fortress with a German businessman and a Chinese college
student. A secret Chinese military base is nearby. Finally, the man in
the coma proves to be an American, a Navajo, who has come to Tibet with
his niece, an anthropologist studying genetic, linguistic and cultural
links between the Navajo and Tibetan peoples.

There is, in short, no lack of suspects as Shan seeks the murderer.
Pattison's plot is complex, at times bewildering, although he does wrap
things up neatly at the end. In truth, however, "Prayer of the Dragon"
is less notable for its murder mystery than for its sensitive and highly
detailed portrait of two cultures in conflict. When the Chinese invaded
several decades earlier, they bombed temples and monasteries. Monks were
killed or imprisoned and tortured to "reeducate" them to accept Chinese
rule. Even in Drango, the corrupt headman sends village youth to China
for education: "Where they are forced to speak only Chinese and sing the
songs of Beijing. Where they are taught the Dalai Lama is a criminal."

Amid these pressures, some monks fight to keep the old ways alive:
"outlawed monks secretly working in their caves to illuminate prayer
books for future generations, risking imprisonment or worse, when they
could be safe in India." A former monk, who has been put in a wooden
yoke that encircles his neck and immobilizes his arms, tells Shan: "I
watch the sheep and memorize sacred texts. On the day I am able to
prostrate myself again, my body will open up like a ripened fruit and a
ball of fire will shoot out."

At one point, a character asks, speaking of a hermit monk: "How does a
holy man become deranged?" Shan replies: "Perhaps the real miracle of
modern Tibet is that they are not all like that."

Shan's investigation takes us into a world of spirits and ghosts, of
sacred paintings, spirit feathers, prayer flags, cave drawings, ancient
chants and death charms. He makes his way to the summit of the sacred
mountain, where the monks believe there is a hidden entrance to the
paradise "where gods and saints once lived in lush gardens and assumed
the shape of rainbows whenever they chose." On the journey to that
sacred place, he barely survives a deathtrap set by monks centuries
earlier to protect paradise from unworthy travelers. Surprises and
mysteries abound here.

This novel taught me more about Tibet -- modern and ancient -- than I
had managed to learn elsewhere over the years. It's not a novel for
everyone, but for the patient reader who cares about Tibet and Buddhism
and deplores their treatment at the hands of the Chinese, it's a
powerful picture of courage in the face of tyranny.
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