New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2004
360 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
Eliot Pattison’s first novel, The Skull Mantra (1999), opens with an arresting image of a Tibetan monk about to commit suicide:
They called it taking four. The tall, gaunt monk hovered at the lip of the five-hundred-foot cliff, nothing restraining him but the raw Himalayan wind. Shan Tao Yun squinted at the figure to see better. His heart clenched. It was Trinle who was going to jump—Trinle, his friend, who just that morning had whispered a blessing on Shan’s feet so they would not trample insects.
There could be no better introduction to Pattison’s world, his fascination with the life of Tibetan monks, the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism, the landscape of Tibet, the suffering of the Tibetan people, and Shan Tao Yun, a disgraced police inspector from Beijing, banished to the roof of the world by the Communist authorities. From this rich raw material, Pattison has constructed an intricate and engaging series of mysteries, in which Shan uses his considerable investigative skills to aid his Tibetan friends.
Pattison made an inspired choice in choosing Shan as his protagonist. As a Han Chinese exiled to Tibet, Shan is a perfect intermediary—neither Tibetan nor Western, neither cop nor crook. He asks the questions we as outsiders might ask, and observes proceedings with a degree of detachment. Through Shan’s eyes, Pattison’s stories move beyond the “whodunit” to become an insightful introduction to Tibet under Chinese occupation. Early in The Skull Mantra, for example, we learn the origin of the imprisoned monks’ unusual euphemism for suicide: while the sin of taking one’s life inevitably leads to reincarnation in the animal realm, “opting for life on four legs could be a tempting alternative to life on two in a Chinese hard-labor brigade.” Although not raised a Buddhist, Shan quickly takes to the dharma after encountering many devoted practitioners in the harsh gulags of Tibet.
Shan’s adventures continue in Water Touching Stone, published in 2001, and Bone Mountain, in 2002.Beautiful Ghosts is the fourth installment in this popular series, which has been translated into twenty languages, though not, as one might expect, into Chinese. As the book begins, Shan is living and studying with a group of renegade Buddhists, monks unauthorized by China’s official bureaucracy. His teacher has instructed him to prepare for a solitary retreat, but these plans are interrupted by a mysterious death in an underground “earth taming” temple (built to placate wrathful deities at a time when earthquakes were prevalent) in a remote part of Tibet, an incident somehow connected to the disappearance of an important artifact from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Pattison expands the landscape of the series by flying Shan off to Beijing, and then to Seattle, before bringing him back to Tibet to solve the mystery. But all the central themes turn up, with the usual cast of lamas lurking in the background to nudge Shan in the right direction.
Pattison developed his admiration for Tibet during extensive travels in China and the Himalayan region as an international lawyer and policy consultant. Though he does not engage in the formal practices of Tibetan Buddhism, he tries “to practice its tenets,” he told me in a recent interview, and is “an avid reader of its teachings.” Much of what we learn about the dharma comes from simply observing Shan’s lama friends. “One of the things I consciously try to do is take some of the mysticism out of Tibetan Buddhism,” Pattison explains. “Although that mysticism represents an element in my mysteries, I try to reach a broader audience by showing that in the end its fundamental values are indeed compassion and awareness, and that these are not only to be practiced in temples, but in every hour of everyday life.”
Thus we not only watch the lamas fingering their mala beads, sitting in silent meditation, and performing last rites for the dead, but also see how their practice informs their response to the realities of modern life. At times we take brief detours into the minds of these monks, as in this passage from Water Touching Stone:
“Is it real?” Lokesh asked in a tentative tone, as if uncertain of his senses. The day before, he had seen a giant turtle on the top of a hill, a sign of good luck. He had insisted that they take it an offering and apologized because it had turned back into a rock by the time they had reached it.
Pattison presents this material at face value: the lama didn’t just think he saw a giant turtle, he saw it. Shan and his compatriots treat such otherworldly pronouncements without a hint of irony. This is refreshing but, at times, frustrating, especially for readers skeptical of the magical realism endemic to Tibetan culture.
Despite the faraway locale, Americans always seem to pop up in Pattison’s books, and they are a surprisingly welcome presence. Tibetans may have cornered the market on wisdom in these stories, but Pattison’s Americans inject a note of humor. Beautiful Ghosts allows Corbett, a wry American FBI agent, to become almost a partner to Shan, sharing center stage with him for much of the book and providing comic relief. Corbett, who is investigating the theft of Tibetan artwork from a Seattle collector, is unfazed by the Chinese bureaucrats whom Shan, technically still a prisoner, must try not to offend. There is an amusing moment when the Chinese, having strong-armed Shan into helping with their investigation, balk at replacing his tattered pants. “This man is a convict,” one official says. “This man saved my life,” Corbett rejoins. “If you do not give him some clean pants, I’m going to take mine off and give them to him.”
Pattison’s criticism of China’s Communist government remains a central theme throughout the series. Chinese attacks against Tibetan Buddhists and their institutions are often described in detail, as in this passage from Bone Mountain:
They didn’t warn the monks. Just began shelling. Soldiers set up machine guns and shot into the gompa. Like a war, though no one was fighting back. Some of the old buildings had cellars, temple rooms carved into the rocks below them. It took two days before the soldiers decided no one could still be alive in the cellars. . . . That day, when they started shelling, was the last time I saw a monk for years.
We find none of the moral ambiguity that haunted, say, John LeCarré’s George Smiley novels about the Cold War. However justified Pattison’s position, not every fact works well as fiction, and the litany of China’s misdeeds at times overwhelms the narrative. Whatever twists and turns we encounter as Shan works his investigative magic, we never lose sight of whom the author sees as the bad guys. He readily admits to “a deep admiration for the way that modern Tibetans have endured despite unimaginable adversity, and a deep outrage for the way Beijing has wronged them,” and these emotions infuse all four books.
Writing a series poses certain technical hurdles. The author must introduce the same characters from book to book, neither confusing newcomers with too little background nor boring loyal readers with too much. Pattison’s success at weaving so many details about Tibet into The Skull Mantra has created still another challenge: what will he teach us next? In fact, he manages to cram so much information into the myriad plot twists that at times it seems as if he may have taken too many notes in his travels. Water Touching Stone, for example, is set in the northwest hinterlands of modern China, and involves so many distinct ethnic minorities (I counted Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, Uighurs, Tadjiks, and ethnic Russians, in addition to the Tibetans and Han Chinese) that it is hard to keep all the characters straight. Beautiful Ghosts largely avoids this pitfall; at 360 pages, it is the shortest entry in the series, and the length feels just right.
There is a real sense of closure at the end of Beautiful Ghosts, to both the novel itself and the series as a whole. (Pattison is working on a new series, although he hints that we haven’t seen the last of Shan.) After this 1,700-page journey, Shan has become almost more Tibetan than Chinese, his dreams of escape from exile now a distant memory. He readily explains the fine points of Tibetan Buddhism to various Americans and Chinese; China’s experiments with the free market have made Beijing seem almost like foreign territory to him; and he finds Seattle too rainy after so many years in the high desert of the Himalayas. In the end, Shan is at home in Tibet. And by now, so are Pattison’s readers.