ORACLE LAKE: A THRILLER
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007
416 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
Oracle Lake opens in Dharamsala, India, with “the scent of death in the air,” a “stillness of despair” enveloping the “shabby collection of buildings clinging precariously to the hillside,” and proceeds to pose a fascinating question: what will happen when the Fourteenth Dalai Lama passes away?
His Holiness himself has been somewhat noncommittal on this point, leaving open the possibility that the next Dalai Lama may be born outside Tibet or may not even return at all. But this fast-paced new novel by the English novelist Paul Adam goes straight for the trickiest scenario, imagining that the next Dalai Lama has been born somewhere in occupied Tibet and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile has to find him before the Chinese government does. It’s a great setup for what should be a riveting adventure.
Unfortunately Oracle Lake never quite delivers on its promising premise. This failure is due in part to the unwelcome presence of Maggie Walsh, a British photojournalist obsessed with bringing the world’s tragedies to network television. Paul Adam chooses her as his principal protagonist, perhaps in an attempt to make the book more accessible to Western readers. Sadly, Maggie is a nearly perfect cliché: the tough-talking war correspondent who has no patience for sentimentality and is inclined to respond to earnest questions with a “cynical snort.” Her last vacation was “three weeks in a Russian army detention cell” in Groszny, though she confides knowingly that “most people wouldn’t count that as a holiday.” All this is particularly regrettable as Maggie steals the limelight from Adam’s many more intriguing characters, particularly Tsering, the Tibetan monk assigned to lead the search party into China. He may be something of a stock character, too—the conflicted monk who can’t help but wonder about the lay life he’s left behind—but he’s vastly more interesting than Maggie.
Oracle Lake bears the subtitle “A Thriller,” and it will likely appeal mostly to devotees of that genre. Although the book is immensely readable, much of the dialogue is almost comically bad. The low standard is set early on, in a throwaway sequence set in Latin America that serves to establish Maggie’s bona fides as a world-weary reporter. Here she is arguing with an American military adviser:
“There’s a civil war going on down here.”
“Oh yeah, and whose side are you on?”
“I don’t take sides, I take pictures.”
These sorts of exchanges contribute to the cartoonish quality of much of Oracle Lake and its often one-dimensional characters. Unlike those in Eliot Pattison’s successful series of Tibetan thrillers—which revolve around a Han Chinese inspector—the Chinese characters here are almost uniformly evil. We begin to feel begrudging respect for Major Chang Wei, the officer in the secret police assigned to find the monks, but Adam does not make this easy, painting even the amazing perseverance of this “gritty little bastard” in a fairly negative light:
The snow on the ground was two feet deep and more was falling every minute. Most police commanders, never mind one with a cushy office posting, would long ago have called a halt to the march and set up camp to wait for better weather. But not Chang. He’s driven the commandos relentlessly through the blizzard, taking his turn in the vanguard where the swirling snowflakes, propelled by the wind, hit the face with the force of flying needles.
Despite these flaws, there are some beautiful descriptions of Tibet’s awesome landscape and intriguing cultural observations sprinkled through these pages. Maggie’s gloss on the “package tour Buddhists” who gather in Dharamsala will strike a chord with any readers who have made their own pilgrimage to Asia:
Backpackers, travelers, mostly young but many much older, who thought the east offered spiritual peace, some kind of meaning to their lives they’d been unable to find back home in Basingstoke or Baltimore; dreamers who thought a fortnight of incense and chapattis would bring nirvana.
The flip side of his sometimes one-sided portrayal is Adam’s scathing depiction of life in Tibet under Chinese occupation. He describes the arbitrary detention, torture, and murder of ordinary Tibetans in unflinching detail. And he is equally astute in describing the subtler destruction, the “row after row of barrack-like concrete buildings that had been knocked up on the cheap” filling the streets of Lhasa, and the gradual grinding away of traditional culture.
The plot, too, is gripping enough to hold our attention, and while we may suspect the outcome from early on, Adam holds back a few surprises until the very end. It may not be great literature, but there are worse ways to while away a few hours at the beach or pass the time on a long commute. As Tsering himself advises, “you should slow your life down, take some time to cultivate and nourish your spirit.” Or if you need a break from all that, you could read this book.
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