Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stephan Talty's "Escape from the Land of Snows" Book Review

This very accessible narrative carries wide appeal. With so many eager to learn more about the Dalai Lama, this popular, yet well-researched account aims at the curious reader who may want the dramatic story without too much historical analysis or political detail. Talty pitches this at such an audience, and he aims at the sweet spot of dramatic personal reports and thoughtful cultural observations.

Most of the action takes place in twenty-one days, after March 10, 1959 inspired Lhasa to join what had been a scattered uprising in the countryside against the Chinese PLA military occupation. The Dalai Lama's flight, disguised as a common Tibetan soldier, ensured the king would survive but his realm would vanish, at least as an independent entity. A third of Lhasa came to protect their leader after the Communists seemed to set up a trap for him, and the PLA and collaborationist officials and bureaucrats, bought off with bags of silver coins, earned the hate of most natives.

But in a nation where there was no word for "religion" such as was its ingrained presence in a sparse and remote land set up to run monasteries as the central institutions for an agrarian society under harsh conditions, and where for centuries even the words for "military aggression" had faded from memory, the Tibetans faced slaughter while struggling to justify self-defense by violent methods. The Dalai Lama could not express himself, as the Chinese watched, and in his year earlier in the 1950s when he toured China, Mao let slip in an aside to the Dalai Lama not propaganda of feudal overthrow but the truer Marxist truth: "Religion is poison, of course." 

Talty tells this well. He cites many observers and participants, and the first half of the story brings the Dalai Lama's life into this milieu that he faced as he came of age and sought to direct Tibet just as the newly victorious Chinese entered this newest of their territories to "liberate" in 1950. Shen Choa, a diarist with the PLA in 1959, demonstrates the gap of "false consciousness," perhaps, between supposed liberators and those whom the Marxists could not believe took up arms against their armed emancipators: "They are raising up such havoc all through the city that it's as if some imperialist invader had entered our land." (qtd. 84)

Meanwhile while the CIA had aided Khampa rebels (see my review of John & Elizabeth Roberts' "Freeing Tibet" for more), many stayed ignorant. Allen Dulles, CIA head under Ike, did not at first know where Tibet was on a map. Its isolation meant that few in the West knew much more than romantic stereotypes. Talty discusses the "foreign brother syndrome" which celebrated the Tibetan "who shares the West's values," somehow preserving them from antiquity while separated by centuries and geography from them today. (But this is a point he does not cite directly, only via "an expert," and this section lacks full documentation, although on the whole the book, seen in proof galley, appears to list sources conventionally. It also merited photographs; some maps lack detail.)

The second half of the book covers March, when the Dalai Lama's poignant escape begins, and when the rebellion bursts into an heroic, but hopelessly outmatched, ten days or so of war in Lhasa as monks and citizens fight the PLA artillery. He would have heard the propaganda loudspeakers: "You are like ants scratching at the elephant's feet. China is as mighty as the sun and wherever there is sun, there the Chinese are also." (123)

These fearsome conditions worsen, Talty intersperses well the saga of the Dalai Lama's clandestine flight, while Lhasa learns of his escape only to fight back all the more against the Communists and their sympathizers. When they learn of the leader's vanishing under cover of night, the danger grows, for turncoats and spies lurk. (Chogyam Trungpa's "Born in Tibet" --also reviewed by me--offers a similar story, from a monk's experience.) The Dalai Lama and his entourage face pursuit across grim and formidable conditions that daunt even the Tibetans.

Outraged and embarrassed by the Dalai Lama's plan, the Chinese attack those back in the capital. The vast monastic fortresses turn chaotic charnel houses. One defender's account is summarized: "Soepa remembered conversation after conversation with people who emerged out of the darkness and the billowing dust, only to disappear again on an errand or to be scattered by a shell dropping from the sky." (146) The bombardments and bloodshed gain vivid description as Talty mixes primary accounts, interviews archived, and oral histories skillfully.

When news of the desperate escape attempt reached the West, a race for reporters began. Two London-based reporters, the proto-activist George Patterson, and the celebrity yarn-spinner Noel Barber competed to get to where the Dalai Lama seemed likely to cross into India. A New York Daily News headline captured the mood: "Godless Reds vs. a Living God in Tibet" that summed up Cold War sensationalism mixed with tabloid Orientalism.

Tibet as a real place, too, turned famous "just as it ceased to exist," and Talty mentions (if in passing) how its transfer into today's globalized "place of mind" and as a "cause" started in 1959. The results, which are familiar if still overlooked by too many eager to emphasize the trade and economic benefits brought by the Chinese at the cost of cultural destruction and raw genocide, show the difficulty of knowing precisely what happened in the aftermath of the Dalai Lama's flight. Talty estimates that at least 1:5 Tibetans died.

Those who lived may regret their situation. The labor camps and killing fields wiped out many, while other Tibetans took advantage of the overthrow to persecute landowners, settle scores with rivals, and to confiscate property. In exile, the Dalai Lama emphasized the noble pursuit of freedom, for what he had gained for himself, he knows, comes at a tremendous loss to his homeland.

Fifty years later, Talty visits for a short stay allowed only under constant surveillance in "a parody of a police state." Lhasa, it is rumored, is miked and monitored in tourist areas, and Talty and his ever-present guide find little to celebrate. However, "Lhasa exists around an absence" of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Even as his books and photos are banned, the people manage, surreptitiously but steadily, to pay homage to his presence. (Posted to Amazon US 3-29-11 & 4-21)

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