The Tale of the Incomparable Prince
Mdo Mkhar Tshe Ring Dbang Rgyal
Translated by Beth Newman
HarperPerennial: New York, 1997
319 pp., $13.00 (paperback).

It’s not surprising that The Tale of the Incomparable Prince—which its publisher calls “the only pre-exile Tibetan novel”—is full of surprises. An epic tale that builds to a thundering Buddhist sermon, it also disarms modern readers with plenty of romance, lust, intrigue, and violence.

The eighteenth-century courtier who wrote it, Mdo Mkhar Tshe Ring Dbang Rgyal, seems to have been a novelist in spite of himself. As the translator, Beth Newman, notes in her introduction, he was a powerful political figure who held numerous positions (including prime minister) in a time of great turmoil. Trained in Buddhist monastery schools, he believed that religion and politics were “inextricably mixed.” But on the way to delivering its religious message, his novel also provides plenty of timeless psychological insight.

Newman suggests various literary models for the story, including the life of the Buddha and Hinduism’s great epic, the Ramayana. But the first half of the book will also remind readers or Homer’s stories of the Trojan War.

Two men are in love with the same wondrous woman. Prince Kumaradvitiya is from the land of Joyous Groves. In looking for a wife, he has settled on a princess named Manohari, who not only has a considerable attachment to him from a previous life but is also “the most incredibly beautiful woman in existence.” Unfortunately, for various diplomatic and financial reasons, she has been promised to Prince Devatisha of the Kingdom of Myriad Lights, an unrepentant reprobate who is in no way worthy of her. Kumaradvitiya vows to use any means, including warfare, to win her.

Like many great heroes, Kumaradvitiya has a brilliant and talented friend, almost his equal. This friend, Bhavakumara, travels to Myriad Lights ahead of the prince in order to undermine the kingdom. One wonders why he bothered. Kumaradvitiya, when he arrives, is such an adept in martial arts as to be virtually untouchable.

thetaleofMeanwhile, back in Joyous Groves, King Suryamati, the prince’s father, has fallen for a teenage girl. No problem so far: multiple marriages were de rigueur for these feudal lords. But the wily minister who is father to the young woman puts a condition on their union. If they have a male heir, the child must be crowned king. Suryamati knows this is not right, but he can’t control himself. As Kumaradvitiya charitably puts it, the older man has been “swept away by the strong current of the karmic river.”

In truth, Kumaradvitiya isn’t especially disturbed by his father’s shenanigans. For one thing, the new male heir turns out to be an absolute paragon, “the summit of a mountain of virtues.” Furthermore, this new heir will enable Kumaradvitiya to renounce the world and devote himself to his religion. Despite his enormous prowess as a warrior, Kumaradvitiya has been aware all along that his present life will merely lead to more rebirths and a continued existence on the wheel of sorrow. It is only by conquering desire itself that he will achieve liberation.

Of course, his new life is not without pitfalls. When Kumaradvitiya becomes a temporary regent and opens up his coffers to beggars, he nearly bankrupts the kingdom. His decision to retreat to the forest breaks the heart of his elderly mother. And for a while he even rejects the faultless Manohari, revealing a misogynistic bent. At this point, he begins to sound like an aging Leo Tolstoy. And yet, even when Kumaradvitiya is at his crankiest, his adventures lure us with their sophisticated prose and powerful verse. Westerners with an interest in Buddhism will find it fascinating to read a novel that incorporates this religious worldview. But anyone with an interest in literature will recognize The Tale of the Incomparable Princeas a classic story.

David Guy is the author of four novels, most recently The Autobiography of My Body. This book review is reprinted courtesy of The New York Times.

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