Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jonathan Green's "Murder in the High Himalaya": Book Review

Two months after a 17-year-old Tibetan nun was murdered by the Chinese police, this reporter for London's paper The Mail on Sunday followed her footsteps, and those of the 70 surviving refugees who made it across to Nepal in 2006. His coverage here sums up what became a fine account of what to my knowledge has not received attention before: the intersecting paths of mountain climbers from the West, who pay tens of thousands of dollars to scale Cho Oyu or Everest, and the desperate Tibetans attempting, under increasingly brutal conditions in their homeland and progressively more invasive surveillance by spies, technology, and soldiers, to find freedom on the other side of the Himalayas. Green writes movingly of the contrast between such climbers as famed guide Luis Benitez and the photographer Sergei Matei (who filmed some of the shootings of the refugees that his climbing party saw from a distance) and Dolma Palkyi, in exile now, the best friend of the murdered girl Kelsang Namtso.

I heard this story on an audiobook. William Hughes reads it fluently, with at least to my untutored ears an accurate rendition of the many Chinese and Tibetan names and places. His rendition keeps the slightly distant tone adopted by reporter Green, who strives to find out as much as he could despite a fearful tendency of the Chinese to suppress protest and squelch dissenters in the West not to mention the East. Yet, Hughes' voice and Green's style also strive to discover the conflicts beneath the initial press flurry of attention to this story.

Its comparative rarity lies in the fact it's the first time since the Dalai Lama's flight in 1959 during the Chinese conquest that documentation has existed of a murder by the communists. As Matteo Pistono has revealed in his own eloquent book, "In the Shadow of the Buddha", getting out hard evidence of atrocities from Tibet is next to impossible. Both sides engage in propaganda, and hearsay inflates the real suffering perpetrated. As Green himself is told by the Dalai Lama when he visits him in Dharamsala, the need to stay "honest" is difficult advice to follow when telling of Tibet.

Lots about Tibet is interspersed with mountaineering and Everest-variety lore, and while to me this was integrated well, it does demand close attention as the points of view shift between Benitez and climbers, historical background, and the lives of Dolma and Kelsang and their band of escapees. Green, in the penultimate section of this necessarily expansive book, delves (for me too briefly but this may be due to Chinese spin doctoring at home and abroad of pro-Tibetan voices in print and online) into how complicated the whole issue has become. What the East denounces as feudalism and the West often romanticizes in Tibet clash with the political ramifications and economic realities of a superpower determined to crush dissent and to, in the times during and after the 2008 Olympics, to squelch the truth. Small wonder, Green finds the Dalai Lama bursting out into anger as he laments how the death of Kelsang represents the true face of Chinese power, and how we in the West acquiesce as readily as did the mountaineers (who symbolize perhaps this accommodation) to favor.

Green considers, near the end of his narrative, how the Romanian photographer's choice to document the killing that suddenly erupted below the slope came from his awareness of oppression under totalitarianism, and how to him, freedom meant more than personal security or safety. Yet this same bold individual tells in the presence of his own meeting with the Dalai Lama a markedly off-color phrase to show how his photos and video "embarrassed" the Chinese! Green to his credit keeps his own objectivity, even as he naturally cheers on the choices of the Westerners who felt, finally, they had to tell the world what the majority of the climbers did not want to reveal about Kelsang's death.

Benitez, an American guide, contended with his own reputation as a driven, perhaps self-aggrandizing (to his many critics among fellow climbers, a contentious lot) Westerner, torn between the love of the mountains and his duty, reluctantly and imperfectly realized, to tell the world what he and his clients (who felt they could have done nothing and did not want to anger their Chinese upon whom they depended for permits and access and patronage by bribes) had seen. Dolma in India finds herself, along with many refugees, ironically comparing the more modern Lhasa (under relentless colonization by the incoming Han Chinese and tourism now by rail) with the backward conditions of her asylum in India, even if she is nearer the Dalai Lama whom she and her companions had longed to meet. No one here seems to have found a truly happy ending.

I cannot help but compare what I and billions heard about the Olympics against what I never heard in 2008 about this one woman's murder from afar at the Nangpa La pass. The imbalance, despite Green's commendable work, grows more and more against Tibet and on the side of a Maoist Nepal all too willing to support its watchful neighbor, the dominant and implacable China. One closes this thought-provoking, ambitious, and ethically relevant book soberly. (Amazon US 4-20-12)

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