Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Jamie Zeppa's "Beyond the Sky and the Earth": Book Review

In her mid-twenties, delaying a doctoral program in English, Jamie Zeppa leaves Toronto for Bhutan early in 1989. What she finds in part confirms her fears of hardship, isolation, and loneliness, but she overcomes her fears of leeches, rats, and fleas (she counts 50-odd bites early on) and learns to love her  intrusively generous junior-high students in a Southeastern Bhutanese hamlet where she volunteers on a Canadian government program. Soon, she transfers to where she had been turned down for her first assignment before departure: the nation's first, small university, Sherubtse, closer to the central region in Kanglung of this vertiginous realm.

She'd been rejected for fears that her youth and inexperience would lead to a romantic liaison with a student there, and soon, she falls in love with one to whom she lends Garcia Marquez' novels, Tshewang. His intelligence and shyness attract her, and Zeppa writes convincingly of her struggles not to succumb, for fear of her reputation in a land where everyone knows too soon everyone else's affairs. "History" is translated in the local language as the stories that people tell.

She contrasts this network well with her Christmas holiday back in Canada, where Western individualism, privacy, and consumerism grates on her after being abroad. Bhutan's connectivity, where one realizes who purchases what, who made that, who knows whom, enchants her, but she remains honest about the drawbacks of intimate life in a kingdom where she will never fit in, and her romanticism contends against the poverty, conformity, and censorship she witnesses as the threatened monarchy cracks down on the Nepali immigrants who have settled across the open border with India and who, the kingdom fears, may overwhelm the Buddhist culture and indigenous peoples in the manner that China has conquered Tibet and that India has subdued Sikkim in the same manner.

In her grad school seminars, talk of cultural construction of values comes easily, but as she teaches Shakespeare at the university, she sees how her classes divide bitterly over these ethnic and religious loyalties. Underneath the respect shown her by Bhutanese schooled in obedience to authority, she suspects a complicated scenario that remains hidden from her sight. She fairly examines, as best she can as an outsider forbidden to meddle in internal issues, the Situation, as it comes to be called.

Meanwhile, this chronicle adroitly takes us along as the events occur during her teaching stints. She lands in a place quiet and still: "It is easier to picture a giant child gathering earth out of armfuls, piling up rock, pinching mud into ridges and sharp peaks, knuckling out little valleys and gorges, poking holes for water to fall through." (14) Yet this land's filled with dogs, chatter, and nosy neighbors along the paths and roads that link its inhabitants on muddy slopes beneath vast vistas. "Every sign of human settlement repeats the mantra of contentment, 'this is enough.'" (109)

Amidst intimacy and plenitude, she does not discount the human toll to preserve such a fastness between two superpowers hostile to its ancient faith and suspicious of its geopolitical position and its mineral and timber resources. She finds the division of the people into "two solitudes" sobering, and she realizes her attempt to discover an easy solution evades her and her hosts. "I love the view, but I would not want the life," she reasons later in her residence as the Situation darkens her mood. (220)

The outcome of her three-year stint I will leave you to discover. She slips into meditation easily and although her predilection to find out more about Buddhism precedes her arrival, she takes refuge, to enter into buddha-dharma, rather suddenly at least by the leisurely pace of what her narrative has revealed up to then. Zeppa tends to gloss over portions of her stay, to protect I assume her privacy and that of others (despite some adroit characterizations of her often overqualified and under-motivated colleagues at both schools imported from India). Also, the book could have used a much more detailed map and a glossary of terms. All the same, it proves a recommended interpretation which tells her tale--in a land where the roads average seventeen curves per kilometer--straightforwardly and, with a few elisions, smoothly. It does end abruptly, again for discretion perhaps, but more of a sustained fadeaway would have suited the tone better of the preceding story.

I also reviewed Francoise Pommaret's guidebook and that of Lonely Planet: what Zeppa's version offers is the necessary personal perspective, if altered inevitably from two decades ago, as the kingdom now seeks to triple visitors and make it the jet-set contrast to backpacking Nepal. Complementing Lisa Napoli's "Radio Shangri-La" (see my review 3/2011), which stays more in the now-changed capital of Thimphu nearly two decades later, Zeppa's account wanders the rural landscape and small settlements, and her careful eye for detail highlights this graceful, frank, and thoughtful depiction of her adapted home. (Amazon US 5-21-12)

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