Monday, February 18, 2013

Murray Gunn's "Dragon Bones": Book Review

This Australian IT engineer accompanies his new French wife to Bhutan for an extended consultancy, where she's hired to advise its dairy industry's agronomists. Like his compatriot Launsell Taudavin's "With a Dzong in My Heart" memoir set in 1988, Murray Gunn finds that advising the locals about Western methods clashes with rank-pulling bureaucrats, a more lackadaisical work ethic than he expected, and a series of culture clashes mixed with wonder at the kingdom's beauty, Buddhist traditions, and elevated atmosphere. He unfolds his own adjustments gradually, as do the Australian team of Libby Lloyd and Robert van Koesfeld in their 2010 photographs and narrative "Bhutan Heartland"--conducted around the same time the past decade as Gunn's residence with Dominique.

She only arrives two weeks before him, but adjusts rapidly. Her shepherding of Murray allows us a way to learn the customs, cuisine, and etiquette. The expatriate community in the capital, Thimphu, shows the strain of that city's emergence. It's more than doubled the past decade; now the grand "tsechu" festival cannot accommodate in its vast dzong (fortress-monastery) the crowds who flock to watch the dances. Similarly, housing prices geared at foreign workers threaten to skew the market against Bhutanese, while crime (endured by Taudavin in an earlier stay), laziness, pollution, corruption, and tensions appear to increase.

This isn't the New Age Shangri-La marketed by the country by or for Westerners. Gunn does reveal the glorious vistas (he drives its harrowing roads, where more trucks and more drivers do not bode well for safety) and the calculated, carefully expressed charm of his often coy hosts. Yet, to be fair, he nods more to the modernizing pressures and his sympathies for "Southern Bhutanese" as he attempts to get behind the whispers and allusions. This lacks most of the cultural and historical context of other narratives, and he appears to gloss over the fragility of Bhutan's geopolitical predicament.

He does rush past in too few paragraphs what John Wehrheim's Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness (2011 rev. ed) details, as well as "Bhutan Heartland" in a vignette: the manner in which the Bhutanese had to advance to eliminate the Indian rebels, to ease the steady push from the largely Hindu Nepalese to move north into a small, undefended frontier region with limited resources, the last surviving kingdom under Vayrajana Buddhist rule--given the fate of Sikkim nearby to the same demographics and politicking that Bhutanese fear will overwhelm them. Not to mention the cultural turmoil that has happened across Nepal, Ladakh, and Mustang.

He's an experienced ex-pat himself; his own internal threat comes when his knee injury limits his trekking. Dominique, who works out with taikwondo, appears miffed by her husband's capitulation to his body. Ironically, Gunn himself can be snarky, (103) as when he puts down tourists (obviously less buff than he or his wife) who struggle up the easy Paro day-trail. Altitudes can fell even the most fit climbers, by the way. His own ten-day trek, the initial part of the Snowman Trek recounted in
Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World by Kevin Grange, Yakking with the Thunder Dragon: Walking Bhutan's Epic Snowman Trek by Mark Horrell, and in partial form as Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Trish Nicholson, shows how both he and his wife face their own physical limits, although the irony or inevitability of their own frustrations appears to escape them and their robust comrades at the time. Yet, unique to what I've read in other versions, he listens to his guide: "This is our life. We have to come up here no matter what the weather's like and we do the same trails over and over until our feet are sore. And we can never go anywhere else. There's no holiday for us." (134)

But sometimes Gunn's honesty makes him appear insensitive. Not all are as in shape as he and his wife. He bristles that those who can afford to visit are out of shape while most would-be younger visitors could tackle the treks, but the high tariff exacted (which he does not have to pay) limits intentionally tourism, to raise taxes and keep the specter of another Kathmandu distant.

Two years is longer than any tourist or trekker can arrange. Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa offers the standard account of a longer posting, but as that's from nearly two decades earlier when modernization appeared more an aspiration than a condition, Gunn's account's valuable. It's similar in its urbanizing situation to Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on My Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli, from a time in the mid-2000's. Unlike Napoli's thematic chapters, however, Gunn prefers a jump-cut, edgier pace. It resembles a documentary or "reality t.v." edited version of his experience: he slips in cultural information or relevant contexts quickly before leaping off to another topic, whose connection may remain subtle. 

This style may challenge some readers. Gunn chooses a more novelistic approach, although he prefers a straightforward explanation of what goes on. One of the few metaphors he uses compares his tall self in hiking boots beneath the Bhutanese male dress, the "gho," to a Christmas tree in a pair of buckets. He tells of his growing discomfort with the built-in resistance to work by Western standards among Bhutanese who expect to start up call centers and infrastructures comparable to India, and he laments how the evasive, blame-karma-and-others mentality stunts change. However, an encounter late in his stay at a roundabout serves as a surprising if apt analogy for his own lesson.

He relates his two years in the standard style of many immersed abroad: the initial plunge and the adjustment take up much of the narrative, and the second year comes near the end of his book. His difficulties with Dominique come across in suitably muted but honest exchanges which must have been not easy to reconstruct, and while characterizations and scenery may remain less vivid than in accounts told by others who have visited Bhutan, Gunn strives for a more episodic, fragmented representation of what "two years beneath the skin of a Himalayan kingdom" reveals, beneath the colors and facades. (Amazon US 12-12-12)

No comments: