Saturday, 30 July 2011

tibet, tibet [patrick french]

As the title suggests, this book is of primary interest to Tibetophiles. Those intrigued by a mysterious land which sits in the sky and seems to effortlessly generate myths. French addresses this issue from the off, referring to the line from an obscure and second rate British poet called Henry Newbolt, who, in 1904, wrote a poem which coined the phrase: "the mind's Tibet". Writing as someone who's had a fascination with Tibet all his life, he explores the way in which the myths the country generates contribute to our failure to understand the current political realities of Tibet.

The book is framed around a journey which French took at the start of the twenty first century into Tibet. With a raft of contacts and a grasp of the necessary languages, he succeeds in travelling alone through the country, escaping the usual attentions of the Chinese state guides. In his travels he meets peasant horsemen, former political leaders, prostitutes, lorry drivers, state apparatchiks and the Dalai Lama. The book is full of French's encyclopaedic knowledge of Tibet history, myths and customs, but it comes alive when he meets real people who are searching for a way to live under the cement umbrella of Chinese rule. In so doing he obtains an accurate picture of events which lead up to the Chinese invasion and the brutal repression which followed it through the sixties and seventies, a repression intricately connected with China's own history.

The book skirts over much of this history, as well as British and US involvement in the country. What French's book ends up presenting is a paradox. On the one hand there's a Tibet whose history and people have been systematically attacked by the Chinese over the course of the last fifty years. On the other is a country which remains indelibly Tibetan; a place which the march of history might scratch but will, it seems, never be able to break. Although given this book was published almost a decade ago, perhaps this is an optimistic point of view.

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