LHASA: STREETS WITH MEMORIES ROBERT BARNETT New York: Columbia University Press, 2006 219 pp.; $24.50 (cloth)


ROBERT BARNETT’S BRILLIANT rumination on Tibet’s capital, Lhasa: Streets with Memories, begins with a deceptively humble idea. Admitting in his preface that foreign writers cannot portray Lhasa without preconceived notions—particularly given the Sino-Tibetan politics that surround Lhasa and the conspicuous absence of its patron saint, the Dalai Lama—Barnett proposes to merely “scrape a little of the topsoil off the affective history.”

Instead of digging for buried treasure, in other words, Barnett’s archaeology will content itself to observing the visible—the street-corner “convergence of memories.” In taking this modest approach, it’s almost as if he were heeding Vladimir Nabokov’s warning in Transparent Things: “When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object.” Nabokov saw the value of sticking to surface detail in order to embrace a multi-laminated reality. In a rare employment of the exclamation point, Nabokov gushed: “Transparent things, through which the past shines!”

It is in this context that Lhasa: Streets with Memories manages to illuminate the sentiment of Lhasa in a way no work about the city has yet achieved. Intellectually, few authors are better qualified than Barnett to take on this task. He is a former teacher at Tibet University, a linguist, a journalist, and an editor, and is currently at Columbia University as Lecturer in Modern Tibetan Studies. Still, it is not academic pyrotechnics that make this book memorable. It is the genuine emotional weight in the narrator’s voice that will carry the reader from one page to the next—an authentic involvement based on a remarkable and unplanned event that took place in Barnett’s life.

Knowing very little about Lhasa—other than what he had read by earlier chronicles emphasizing the more romantic notions of Lhasa as the City of the Gods—Barnett made his first visit there in the fall of 1987.

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