Himalayan descent

Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of the novel "Abandon" and a forthcoming book of travels, "Sun After Dark."

Patrick FRENCH'S first book, "Younghusband," was for me one of the stunning revelations of recent years. Not yet 30, the spirited young writer followed his subject so fearlessly into the Himalayas, and so deeply into archives overlooked by everyone else, that he threw light, somehow, on some essential truth of Britain's surprising encounters with the world at large. His theme -- a classic man of Empire who, having led a bloody advance on Lhasa, went for a walk on his last evening in the Tibetan capital and had so blinding a mystical vision that he threw over his career and set up a World Congress of Faiths, returning home to write spiritual tracts in which he depicted himself as an Indian -- was rich and irresistible. But deeper than that, French wrote with such effortless charm and self-effacement, and evinced a historical intuition so uncanny and mature, that he began to explain something much broader than just Sir Francis Younghusband and to open up corners of Rudyard Kipling and Paul Scott.

Not the least of the 1997 book's fascinations derived from the fact that the young biographer seemed, in his unobtrusive way, to be very much a Younghusband redux, a product of the British ruling orders drawn toward everything that was the opposite of his background. He did not write off the early 20th century mystic as a crank, as many might, but instead went so far as to suggest that Younghusband's openness to beliefs not his own was, in its way, as heroic as his intrepid forays onto the Himalayan plateau. Younghusband was never more an exemplar of Britain, one came to feel, than in his willingness to go imaginatively native.

French's two subsequent works -- "The Life of Henry Norman" and an account of India's movement toward independence, "Liberty or Death" -- showed him moving beyond the intoxicating sense of discovery of that first book to something more serious, even iconoclastic. Turning an eye on the Anglo-Indian romance so beloved of PBS dramas, he brought a lively skepticism to both Winston Churchill and Mohandas K. Gandhi, as if to show that the emperor had no clothes, even if Gandhi was wearing nothing but a loincloth. While "Younghusband" portrayed a potential figure of fun in a movingly sympathetic light, "Liberty or Death" showed how heroes might look to their valets. French came to seem that oddest of creatures, a goodhearted debunker.

In his new book "Tibet, Tibet," he pursues that impulse into the heart of the country that loomed at the center of his first book and, in a sense, into the very spirit of buoyancy and hopefulness that it enshrined. The new work stitches together an unflinching account of the author's 2 1/2-month journey across Tibet in 1999 with an exhaustive excavation of historical resources designed to show that Tibet was never the peace-loving paradise so many generations of well-wishers have longed for it to be. In effect, the book offers the general reader a digest of the latest wave of revisionist scholarship about Tibet, advanced by Donald S. Lopez, Melvyn Goldstein and Tsering Shakya, and aims to tear down all the myths long associated with Shangri-La (and, in the process, to suggest that those myths are part of what accounts for the suffering of the country today).

More profoundly, the book tells a personal story that is no less poignant in its implications. At one early point, French writes of how his travels in Tibet so violently contravened his expectations that he threw out the "material put out by Western pro-Tibet groups, much of which I had read and some of which I had written." Near the end, the man who actually had given his elder son the Tibetan name Tenzin tells us that, on returning to England, he stepped down as director of the British-based Free Tibet Campaign. (The Dalai Lama, it's worth noting, has not called for a "free Tibet" -- only a saved one -- for at least 15 years.) At some level, the book is not just about the loss of paradise but also about innocence lost; it is, in effect, the anguished story of how French could no longer sustain the optimistic views he once shared with Younghusband. There is a sense, the more powerful for being unvoiced throughout, of someone's falling out of love with a culture that once changed his life and now gathering ammunition for divorce court.

French has always been more a historian than a typical travel writer, I think (the travel sections of "Younghusband" were engaging largely because they were asides, almost comic interludes), and his account of the trip to Tibet is in its way as punishing as the trip itself must have been, passing through a long trail of spiritless places where "drunken Tibetans in cheap synthetic clothing swayed past heavy administrative buildings, and bored Chinese migrant workers advanced into a karaoke block called 'The Art Gallery of the Masses.' " At one point, the author's pocket is picked on a bus; at another he sees Tibetans draw knives on one another. Yet what redeems these grueling passages are the stories he extracts from everyone he meets, some of enduring horrors during the Cultural Revolution and others, more remarkably, of inflicting them.

These memories are not for the faint of heart. We read of people beaten with belts until the belts broke, and others scrambling to eat the leather from shoes. Onetime torturers, former noblemen and activist nuns talk of years of terror and self-abnegation as if they were daily occurrences. French describes how at least 10,000 people are thought to have practiced cannibalism in one province of China during the '60s; he shows the aristocrats of Lhasa eagerly embracing everything Chinese as late as the '50s and the Dalai Lama's cabinet enjoying picnics even as Chinese troops invaded eastern Tibet in 1950.

French has a decided gift for inspired and heartfelt research and a knack for coming upon overlooked details that are worth several volumes of analysis. Not many writers on Tibet are able to uncover the note Mao scribbled in a copy of Friedrich Paulsen's "System of Ethics" that in some ways sums up everything that followed: "I am the universe," the Chinese leader wrote, "life is death and death is life, the present is the past and the future, the past and the future are the present, small is big, the yang is the yin, up is down, dirty is clean, male is female, and thick is thin."

He also is a strikingly scrupulous and disciplined writer (deserved winner of the young writer of the year award in 1998 from London's Sunday Times and anointed by literature Nobelist V.S. Naipaul to be his biographer), and his prose betrays not a trace of self-regard. He wins readers' trust with his air of determined humanity, and he earns our admiration with his puckish ability to describe Tibet's part in the stories of both John Updike and "Lara Croft" in a single paragraph. Drawing upon Russian poet Nadezhda Mandelstam, he suggests how the madness of a police state deforms every moment of Tibetan life today; and with his patient research, he describes how the Potala Palace was restored thanks to a Chinese emperor and looks into the story of a Tibetan politician whose eyeballs were removed, with yak bone and knives, in the '30s at the implicit behest of the 13th Dalai Lama.

Most of all, French is skilled at playing out the incongruities of cultural convergence. Something of the Younghusband book's sprightliness returns when we read of British visitors challenged to a game of soccer in Lhasa in 1933 by "a home side called 'Lhasa United,' composed of three bearded Ladakhis wearing red fezzes, a Chinese tailor, a Nepalese soldier and five of Tibet's leading young aristocrats, including Yuthok and Taring," who, wearing charm boxes on their heads, were prevented from heading the ball. Later, writing of how four Tibetan boys were sent, somewhat quixotically, to Rugby School in 1912 England, French notes that one was described by his British tutor as "a perfect idiot at a simple game of cards." (The same boy went on to help control Lhasa's police force and bring electricity to many houses.) Some of the retired Chinese officers he met in Tibet, French observes with typical warmth, reminded him of the old servants of Empire he'd run across in Britain, "likeable old men" who had abruptly found themselves left behind by history's tides.

Yet throughout the book there is something almost merciless about its eagerness to cut through the illusions of Tibet's supporters in the West, as if to admonish the romantic naif that French once was. Certainly there is a sense among all Tibet's friends that the optimism surrounding the Dalai Lama's winning of the Nobel Prize in 1989 and the release of the films "Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet" in 1997 has faded, fast. Everything that could be done for Tibet has been done, it would seem, and yet, 44 years after the Dalai Lama's flight into exile, the people of Tibet remain further from liberation than ever. A new generation of skeptical scholars, exemplified by University of Michigan professor Lopez in his "Prisoners of Shangri-La," has begun to claim that the romanticizing of Tibet may be as cruel as outright neglect and to argue that the high-profile lobbying by certain glamorous Tibetophiles has done as much to hurt the cause as to help it. French himself has fun with two minutes of mutual incomprehension between Larry King and the Dalai Lama during one of their interviews together, while sidestepping the 58 other minutes that are said to have gone swimmingly.

The author's refusal to countenance any simplistic visions of Tibet is certainly bracing and true to the voices of those young Tibetans who, for all their reverence of the Dalai Lama, worry that their leader missed his chance to protect their homeland. Yet his entirely political reading of the Tibetan leader does a disservice to a man whose every choice is compromised by the fact that he is the head of a complex philosophy (and is seen by his compatriots as the incarnation of a god of compassion besides). The Dalai Lama simply does not have the freedom to act that a Gandhi or Nelson Mandela had, and the odd burden of his theocratic role places limits on him that even the canniest politician could not untangle. More deeply, if you see the world as illusory and passing, as a Buddhist monk does in part, you are liable to think in terms of results not always visible in the short run.

French brilliantly dissects much that is fuzzy or wrong in the indiscriminate embrace of Tibet, yet he goes too far, I think, in pronouncing a plague on every house. Tibetans in exile are getting rich, he suggests, Westerners are finding an exotic way to salve their consciences and all the time Tibet itself is being bulldozed into oblivion. He refers to the Tibetan quarter in Lhasa as a "ghetto," though last year, on my third trip there since 1984, I found it to be unexpectedly full of spirit and life, certainly in better shape than during the dark days of martial law. He attacks the British and U.S. governments for exploiting Tibet without ever trying to help it (the thrust of much of the work of Tibet scholar Melvyn Goldstein at Case Western Reserve University), and yet he is too harsh, I think, on the many well-meaning souls who have given their lives to help Tibetan refugees. He mocks the stars of Hollywood for attaching themselves to the Tibetan cause yet never begins to distinguish between a Steven Seagal, say, whom even many Tibetans find embarrassing, and a Richard Gere, who has selflessly devoted his time, money and counsel to Tibet for more than 20 years. Even Hollywood stars, one is tempted to say, have spiritual needs as real as Younghusband's, or French's.

I read "Tibet, Tibet" by complete chance, in the same tiny guesthouse across from the Dalai Lama's home in northern India where French concludes his account. And I began to feel that what he had seen and heard in Tibet was so abject and so harrowing that he could no longer even open his ears to the hopeful voices of Dharamsala and London. Yet the fact remains that Tibetans in Tibet do have a small chance to move beyond their terrible memories and prosper a little. Tibetans abroad are able to exchange ideas and innovations with the rest of the world as they have never done before. And Tibet itself is for the first time open to the gaze of visitors as rigorous and compassionate as French. To say that the country was never a utopia is not to suggest that it does not urgently need our help today. And a place seen in the light of a violent disenchantment can, a Buddhist might say, be as unreal as a place seen in the unnatural glow of first love. *

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