Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tetsu Saiwai's "The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography": Review

Inspired by non-violence and inked as a story of Tenzin Gyatso's struggle as he matures within a homeland under Communist invasion, this simple depiction illustrates the tensions. Idyllic panoramas heighten the contrast with the massacres of innocents, for this Tibet's filled with resistance to Chinese genocide, and Mao's reprisals after he fails to manipulate the Dalai Lama and the second leader, the Panchen Lama, into being puppets for a utopian ideology that masks cultural and political and religious extermination. The style is in the "manga" manner of large faces, not a lot of subtle detail, and direct linear expression of emotions and action.

This could be used to teach younger readers; I gave it to my teenaged son, given a curiosity about Buddhism (he's never read about it) and a love of graphic novels. There's a lot of attention to the diplomatic dissension during the 1950s, and this provides the main plot. Those expecting a broader look at the Dalai Lama's life in exile will not find as much here, but for an introduction to what Tibet faced after Mao's triumph spread his ambitions towards Tibet, this is a swift, and effective primer that sets out the challenges of what happens when arms are taken up and world attention sought, but when both fail against a massive occupation.

Saiwai credits Martin Scorsese's "Kundun" among his sources, and the cinematic nature of this book shows in juxtapositions of the backs of the heads of praying monks with the face of a benevolent giant, triple-faced Buddha, or the last glimpse of the Potola palace by the fleeing Dalai Lama as he disguised hastens into exile from a Lhasa bombarded by an army that claims to be the people's liberators.

I found this an effective reminder of the difficult message of the Dalai Lama that violence no matter how "moral" as intended sparks further reprisals, and often deadlier repression. All options are explained, the violent as well as the pacifist, and the complexity of options and the futility of rebellion darken the tone. There's not much about Buddhism itself, but citation of teachings on peace gain effective placement at key points as the Dalai Lama reminds himself of them.

Saiwai takes pains to be fair to all sides in this saga, but he emphasizes the Buddhist reminder "how anger and hatred can grow inside and cloud people's vision." He shows the Dalai Lama trying to bring about peaceful reform for Tibet, and how this effort was ruined by the imperialism that was foisted upon his countrymen and women as if an anti-colonial opportunity to overthrow feudalism. The factions bicker, the CIA hovers, the Cold War uses this land as its staging ground and as its ignored entity, for Nepal, India, England, and America all turn away as Tibet faces attack.

Today, the situation does not differ much. The Dalai Lama for most of these panels, first round-eyed and happy, later bespectacled and bereft, is shown trying to guide his people as China outwits and outnumbers them. Later, he travels the world preaching his appeal to find harmony with one's foes, and this entreaty widens as Sensai portays the need for progress in a China shown in need, post-Tienanmen Square, of the same hopes for its people as those that Tibetans try to achieve.

The main story begins as the Dalai Lama in 2009 tells of his coming of age. A coda recaps his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1989, with his hope for Tibet's survival, appending an update on the arrival of the rail line to Lhasa that allows further weakening of Tibetan traditions as the Communist regime seeks a "sinicization" of the vast plateau, as migrants already outnumber the six million Tibetans there.

Saiwai shows the Dalai Lama talking to crowds, finding room for orphans who have fled the same homeland as he had, and attempting to convince a world where few leaders hear what many ordinary folks in his audiences may come to accept: the restoration of Tibet as a natural park, the arrival of peace to its people, and the autonomy of their homeland. Meanwhile, the Chinese import their people, strip its resources, and crush its resistance. Whether this tale has a happy ending remains ambiguous. Impermanence remains. (Posted to Amazon US & 11-12-10)

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