“The Handsome Monk and Other Stories” by Tsering Döndrup

Tibet

Ah, Tibet! This is the land of stupendous mountain vistas, prayer flags flapping in the breeze, monasteries perched precariously on hillsides and gentle orange-clad lamas chanting Buddhist prayers in incense-filled temples. And then, along comes Tsering Döndrup to spoil it all.

Tibet, (the non-existent country of Tsezhung in these stories) as depicted in this fascinating collection, is a land of poverty, alcoholism, gambling, disease, political and religious corruption, crime, and hordes of Han Chinese imposing on the local culture, making the inhabitants a minority in their own land, and leaving them poised liminally between the traditional ways of the past and modernisation.

The real Tibet is part of China now, of course, and living there is all about survival, as its ancient culture falls victim to the inexorable advance of the People’s Republic and its way of life. In this collection of stories we meet people who are trying to do just that, and by the end of the book we should be roundly disabused of any romantic notions we might have had about Tibet. We may also be surprised to learn that in spite of the Chinese cultural incursions, Tibetan religious tradition and folkways still play a significant role in the lives of ordinary people.

 

The Handsome Monk and Other Stories, Tsering Dondrup, Christopher Peacock (trans) (Columbia University Press, January 2019)
The Handsome Monk and Other Stories, Tsering Dondrup, Christopher Peacock (trans) (Columbia University Press, January 2019)

Tsering Döndrup, who is actually from Malho, a Tibetan county in Chinese Mongolia, employs familiar Western-style narratives in some of the stories, but he also ventures into fantasy and a form of what is often termed “magic realism”, genres which reflect the spiritual and religious aspects of Tibetan culture.

Thus we have a starkly realist story like “Piss and Pride,” in which an elderly man, unfamiliar with the city, attempts to maintain his dignity (and family honour) as he finds himself caught short in wet trousers with nowhere to go, or “A Show to Delight the Masses”, in which Lozang Gyatso, a corrupt governor, finds himself summoned by the messengers of the Lord of Death (who now lives in a “Western-style highrise”) and ultimately put on trial. Here Döndrup employs a mixture of verse and prose, which is an older form of narrative, although it’s set in 1993 and contains familiar modern material.

Not all the stories reach the level of these highlights. “Notes of a Volunteer AIDS Worker” is a rather boring (yet tellingly relevant) first-person narrative based on an actual interview, while “The Story of the Moon”, a short generational fable, is another conventional story which takes place against a post-apocalyptic background, a genre that has rather outworn its novelty. However, even when the writing is not so accomplished these stories have a serious message which Döndrup needs to get out: there is an AIDS problem in Tibet, and the prospect of a bleak post-apocalyptic world should be of concern to everybody, especially those who care about the environment as well as the human race. These stories also situate Tibet firmly in the modern world, sharing the fears that lurk within most societies these days

Döndrup has a wicked sense of humor.

Döndrup deploys a number of literary techniques in this collection; it shouldn’t take readers long to notice, for example, that there’s a preponderance of body-fluids in these stories. In “Ralo”, for example, the eponymous protagonist is remembered by the narrator as having “thick yellow snot hanging from his nose,” to which his mother reacts by saying “His brains are dripping out again.” In the title story, Gendün Gyatso, the monk, he spends some time describing the “semen-smelling” room in which the protagonist occupies his time having sex with Lhatso.

Döndrup has a wicked sense of humor, too; in “Black Fox Valley” the residents of a village are moved by the authorities to a place wonderfully-named “The Happy Ecological Resettlement Village”, where their new house collapses, they have to drink fake milk, their property gets stolen and when supplied with a brand-new lavatory, they are reluctant to use the toilet, not knowing what it’s for. “Pissing and crapping in a lovely basin like this?” Grandpa Jamyang exclaims, “We’d use up so much merit our assholes would close up!” It’s just as well, in the end, because someone forgot to connect it to the plumbing. To add insult to injury, they get no compensation for the mishaps.

Another technique which Döndrup uses is recurring characters, something we see in, for instance, Joseph Conrad with his narrator Charles Marlow, who shows up in Lord Jim and Chance as well as Heart of Darkness, and whose attitudes and prejudices become well-understood by readers. Döndrup features a monk called Alak Drong, “whose unscrupulous ways”, Christopher Peacock tells us in his very helpful introduction, “will quickly become all too familiar to the reader.” Peacock informs us that his name means something like Reverend Wild Yak, and that he is

 

the foremost symbol of Tsering Döndrup’s wide-ranging and unflinching critique of corruption and hypocrisy in the modern-day practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

 

However, as Peacock warns us, we should not assume that Döndrup is merely on the attack against the religious community. In “The Handsome Monk”, the protagonist may be a rather dodgy religious figure, but he is also a human being with all the inner conflicts that go along with that, and the narrative voice (or Döndrup himself) does not judge him harshly, which elevates the story from invective into a more powerful and subtle satire. Döndrup writes similarly of corrupt officialdom and of tourists who think Tibet is a primitive land which has somehow escaped all the bad things about western civilization and remains the “pure land”. Finally, China itself, now seen by many as the occupying power, is always lurking in the background, part of the modernizing of Tibet, but also the conveyor of much that has gone wrong in Tibetan society. Döndrup, to his great credit, rarely if ever goes didactic on his readers; he’s not writing to propound solutions to Tibet’s problems, but to illustrate them. Thus we have characters who are superstitious, corrupt, greedy and hypocritical, but they are often made that way by the social environment in which they operate. Satirists don’t present themselves as sociologists or psychologists—they hold up a mirror so that people can see themselves in it.

Tibetan writing does not exist in a vacuum.

To emphasize the connection between Döndrup’s writing and world literature, it’s worth reading Christopher Peacock’s introduction: Tibetan writing does not exist in a vacuum, and Tibetan writers can be widely-read in other literatures. In “Ralo”, which is almost a novella, Peacock detects the possible influence of the modern Chinese writer Lu Xun and his novella The True Story of Ah Q (1922), whose eponymous main character goes around creating his own world that often turns out to be the opposite of reality. Ah Q always thinks he’s winning even when he’s obviously losing, but in many ways is just like Ralo, who may be “lazy and foolish … gullible and absurd, but he is also the victim of social forces beyond his control.”

Döndrup is very familiar with Western writers, too; as Peacock tells us, he likes George Orwell and some of the great Russian writers of the 19th century, particularly Gogol, Goncharov and Lermontov. Whether or not he is familiar with the distinguished Portuguese writer José Eça de Quieroz, the title-story of this collection bears close comparison with The Crime of Father Amaro (1876); in these works so-called religious people encounter the forbidden fleshly temptations of the world and succumb to them, but are not merely painted as loathsome, hollow, one-dimensional hypocrites.

Tsering Döndrup gives us a book full of memorable characters, each of whom is attempting to navigate a course in a country which is negotiating its own way through the constant barrage of modernism fired at it by the outside world. He does this by employing both traditional Tibetan storytelling techniques and Western narrative strategies, and the result is endlessly fascinating for the reader. Tsering Döndrup is a major writer for our times, and anyone who cares about Tibet or storytelling should embrace this collection wholeheartedly.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.