Sunday, October 2, 2011

To a Mountain in Tibet

Colin Thubron is an exceptionally gifted writer - esteemed as a travel writer, under-acknowledged as a novelist - 'To a Mountain in Tibet' provides an interesting departure in that his usual self-effacing presence. questioning but rarely questioned, is here set aside.

As he travels to the sacred mountain of Kailas on a path trodden for centuries by pilgrims - Buddhist and Hindu, he finds himself prompted to his own secular scrutiny for discovering himself the last of his line.

However, his secularism remains intact - though he is as erudite as ever on what he sees and its background in geography and history - and is skilful and sympathetic at eliciting the stories of others -he remains fundamentally unpersuaded by the traditions that he encounters.

This is maybe of no surprise given that many of the people he encounters are so poor, and culturally impoverished, that they have no appreciable access to those traditions - both temples and the gods who inhabit them are often unknown.  The monks he encounters are themselves products of a similar background - custodians of a partially understood tradition rather than embodied inhabitants of a living truth (even if only partly realised); and, a tradition severely damaged by the encroachments of both poverty and communism.

There is a very powerful moment when Thubron encounters a 'sky burial' platform where all but the most privileged lamas (who are embalmed or cremated) are ceremonially dismembered and fed to vultures. Only here Thubron finds uncatered for remains (which in Tibetan tradition leaves the body exposed to ghostly possession). Only a belief in reincarnation says Thubron can reconcile you to this impersonal treatment of the dead: a belief he does not possess. Otherwise it is a transgression against the particular individuality of the deceased, even if that end is seen as final. In a compressed few sentences Thubron conjures forth a fault line in cultural expectation - and marvellously allows for both - an appreciation and a recoiling disapproval.

There is a classical austerity around Thubron that eschews all romanticism that makes reading him sobering but all is offered in a quiet compassion that makes him an illuminating lens on the worlds he encounters - more trustworthy than a more celebratory voice.

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