Sunday, December 23, 2012

Michel Peissel's "Mustang: The Forbidden Kingdom": Book Review

As a child, I learned about this thumb-shaped projection of an independent, feudal principality in Nepal that stuck into the Chinese-occupied Tibetan frontier. Michel Peissel, a French-born, English-raised explorer, wrote for National Geographic his account, as the first Westerner allowed to visit this tiny realm in 1964. Since Mustang for me meant in the late 1960s the fantastic Ford model, and secondarily a horse as I grew up, I wondered about connections--there aren't any.

Mustang derives here from Lo Mantang, the walled capital of a thousand people that at this time (since Nepal's Maoists took over in 2008, it's no more) continued medieval European equivalents into the modern era. Peissel, the first European who slept within its confines, takes two months to wander the land, looking for clues as to the origins of its kings in neglected chronicles. It took him two weeks to hike to the kingdom of Lo from Nepal, and few of its intelligent but isolated inhabitants had ever seen a "long nose" foreigner before.

His colloquial Tibetan, gleaned from a grammar abroad and then years of study, affords this Oxford-educated, Harvard Business School dropout a chance to enter the country, after a prime minister's assassination in similarly cautious Bhutan (he wrote about trekking across it in 1970's "Lords and Lamas") foils his plan to stay there. He longs to go deeper into the peaks and plateaus. Lo sits in the "great Himalayan breach" north of Annapurna and Dhalulagiri ranges, facing the funneled winds that bake it up to 90 in the day but freeze it at night. Given Tibet's capitulation, he cannot enter that territory, but he comes as close as possible. Mustang itself, patrolled by Khampas fighting a guerrilla war (see Peissel's later "The Secret War in Tibet") against the communists, proves an edgy outpost.

Even though he does not mention he's a diplomat's son, his negotiations enable him to elude trouble. He and his Tibetan comrade, Tashi, manage to figure out the background of the dynasty that hosts them, and parallels between medieval mindsets of Peissel's ancestors and those of the Lobas he gets to know during his residence can be insightful. He tends as in his later books to boost the advantages of the primitive over the jet-set, but he offers a patient view of the advantages the rest of us forget.

"The fortlike appearance of Kag spoke of a more valiant and warlike race, expressing in the majesty of geometrical sturdiness a taste more robust and less over-richly refined." (69) This as he broaches the divide between Hindu Nepal's "sickly mystery" and enters "the land of Lamas and Buddhism." Later, he spends a restless sleep in a Khampa "samar" war camp, and after Tashi confides his beliefs in spirits, Peissel ruminates. His uneasiness dominates his reflections, with no distractions in the tent, and medieval devils at night seem as real as a similarly outmoded God might in the day to protect him from avalanches and robbers. The next morning, "I had learned the meaning of fear as a direct product of faith. The fear of God, the fear of demons, the fear of famine, of cold, of fire, and of war. In Tibet faith equals fear; this inspires hope and religion." (83)

He continues: "It is faith free of doubt and questioning, it is the capacity to believe in the supernatural as a reality that is the foundation stone of a society of the medieval type. In such a society the incredible is believed, the unusual is not questioned, and the amazing is regarded as commonplace. I was now in the world of the 1,086 Tibetan demons that haunt man and beast and that are realities to the peasants and to Tashi, as they would have to be for me if I was to share the life and culture of Mustang." (84)

Peissel does fall hard for this little enclave, and his affection infuses this account. While he tires at the elevation and fatigue seems to do him in on his later forays away from the capital into the caves (I wanted to learn more about them, as at Yara, and the villages he passed through rather abruptly), it's a valuable reminder of what we miss as we evolve. "In fact we in the modern world all become half blind and half deaf from necessity if we are to admire beauty." (225) He observes how the Taj Mahal so photogenic is next to a "monstrous steel bridge," and how only the careful camera can rescue some places we admire from, say, the fate of the Acropolis, seen by him behind a chicken-wire fence.

The book (subtitled in its 1992 reprint "A Lost Tibetan Kingdom" or "The Forbidden Kingdom" in the edition I read from 1967) tends to rush the latter portion of his stay. He must have taken enormous amounts of notes. For a month's stay and two weeks trek in, it's a substantial report, although the rest of Lo outside the walls of Lo Mantang gets rushed and Peissel's health and stamina may have weakened his attention. Like an earlier, multinational English resident-author in or near these mountains Marco Pallis in Peaks and Lamas (see my March 2011 review), Peissel undergoes a subtle but telling change by the end. He is given a Buddhist name by a lama, Shelkagari, in his fragile state, and his awareness for all his Westernized skepticism appears to alter, after the title he inherits "Crystal Clear Mountain." (11-30-12 to Amazon US)

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