Sunday, April 13, 2014

Beyond the House of the False Lama

"Well did you find it? Did you find Shambhala?" they would ask when I returned.
"No," I would say. "I found what in this world is truer."
"And what's that?" they might ask. "What is truer than Shambhala?"
And I would answer, "Its opposite."

Rather than discover a hidden monastery, fully functioning and graced, in the mountains of Inner Mongolia, in the footsteps of his friend and teacher, the engaging monk Tsung Tsai, the nomadic, sometime poet, Zen bum, George Crane, finds only ruins. He has come to Outer Mongolia, propelled ever forward and escaping a third failed marriage, to the Gobi Desert in autumn, and with his new friend, the filmmaker Jumaand, stand at the place of one of the many monasteries that were destroyed on the orders of Stalin.

Crane is (as his loving third wife intimates as she shows him the door) fabulous to travel with, impossible to live with. He is a man of relentless new directions, that he follows with either intuitive grace or a whim of iron (often both). He writes about his journeys, and encounters on the way, vividly, poetically and with a dash of philosophy mixed in. His eye is both honest and compassionate, and he never spares himself (of either the honesty or the compassion).

He is, at heart, a pessimist - the world, especially the human world, is a ruined place and we, all of us, more often than not, barbarians (as the above encounter illustrates) - and yet he wants to countervail this hard eyed knowing with a desire to seize the moment, lustily, openly, creatively. We can imagine ourselves into a different world, if only 'now'. He is most penetrating when discussing how our 'facts' last only as long as we can imagine them into stories. It is the stories that last not what is meant to have happened 'in reality'. Poetry carries an imaginative truth long after the facts pass into the unknowns of a forgotten history.

This book 'a sequel' to his best selling, 'The Bones of the Master' (where he travels to China with Tsung Tsai) but is less focused than the former book, and loses something for not having (except in its opening section) the foil of the engagement with the 'Master' but is nonetheless a marvellous reflective travelogue bristling with extraordinary characters, striking experiences, and the sensibility of a poet. His description of edging death in a failing sailboat on an edge of a hurricane is a tour de force and if his travelling companions are part real, part exaggerated, none the worse for that.

It's end is in discovering a place in Mongolia that is said to be the place where the wind is born and George sets off in pursuit. It would be an apt home for a man that the Spirit blows where it listeth and for whom the direction and the movement is all, hoping against hope, that there is never a final arrival.

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