Monks and Mayhem in Tibet
Monday, December 3, 2007
PRAYER OF THE DRAGON
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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The editors at Amazon.com have posted their choices for the 10 best mysteries and thrillers of 2007. I reviewed three of them -- Charlie Huston's "The Shotgun Rule," Martin Cruz Smith's "Stalin's Ghost" and Laura Lippman's "What the Dead Know" -- and agree they all belong high on anyone's top-10 list. Others I would include are Robert Harris's "The Ghost," Ronan Bennett's "Zugzwang," Caro Ramsay's "Absolution," Michael Harvey's "The Chicago Way," James Lee Burke's "The Tin Roof Blowdown," David Corbett's "Blood of Paradise" and Richard Aleas's "Songs of Innocence." They're all first-rate and all fit for the holiday stocking of a friend in need of a thrill.