walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

BPL book club pick, _Sky Burial_, Xinran Xue (kindle)

I never did get around to picking up a copy at the library and tonight's the discussion so today I snagged it online. It's short (250 pages or so in paper) and a very fast read.

It's a novel, but it purports to be a fictionalized version of a true story as told to the Chinese author by another Chinese woman named Wen.

Wen grew up in a very exciting time in China (and not in a good way). She went to medical school, where she met her future husband, a bit of an idealist who wanted to help people injured in battle. After some time in Korea, he went to Tibet shortly after they married, and she got an extremely abbreviated death notice. Unsatisfied (and convinced her husband was still alive), Wen joined the army to track him down. Shortly after her arrival, she rescued a Tibetan woman who could speak Chinese suffering from exposure who was trying to track down a companion she had named Tienanmen. Shortly thereafter, the entire detachment is captured by Tibetans who take the Party members hostage and also Wen and Zhumuo. Antics ensue.

Zhumuo and Wen spend a few seasons with a nomadic Tibetan family, but Zhumuo is kidnapped. Eventually, one of the daughters of the family, one of the adult male husbands, and Wen go off in search of Tienanmen, Zhumuo and Wen's missing husband. The priority order isn't clear, and the search pattern is somewhat haphazard. They stumble across Tienanmen at a monastery, then start touring sacred mountains in some sort of Schelling point inspired strategy (Tibetans go to the mountains to find what they lost). This works -- they find Zhumuo, but because Tienanmen has become a monk, Zhumuo and Tienanmen are doomed to unrequite their love forever. They plan to go to Lhasa (eventually they do) but along the way stumble across a hermit named Qiangbo who knows what happened to the missing husband and even has a package of his stuff to deliver to Wen that he's been trying to get back to China for the last few decades.

They proceed to Lhasa after getting permission for Tienanmen to travel further; they need papers to go to China.

Obviously, since the 1950s when Wen left, and the various points in the story in which Wen re-establishes contact with someone from China, when she reaches Lhasa and returns to the last town in China she lived in before searching for her lost husband, things have changed and she's been out of touch. This is a pretty transparent opportunity for Xinran Xue to make some pointed comments about political changes in China over the last 3-4 decades. Wen and her husband are portrayed sympathetically -- but basically as naive dupes. Their less-educated contemporaries are portrayed less sympathetically -- more or less as barbaric savages who barely understand their own culture, much less have any appreciation for anyone else's. The Tibetans are portrayed as inherently religious in nature, but who suffer from having to support an expensive caste of monks who take their goods and offspring, live high on the hog and produce weird but beautiful art forms. The interaction between China and Tibet is portrayed in a complex fashion, but underlying it all is the idea that the Chinese Just Want to Help Tibet by bringing them better stuff, like long ago they brought barley crops.

The failure of communication and the inadequacy of documentation across the drastic political changes in China is pointedly displayed and equally pointedly never explained, altho a variety of people question it in a variety of ways.

When the book was described to me, I basically wanted to hurl, so if this has that effect on you, I've clearly gotten several things across accurately. When I actually read it, it was considerably worse. The good news is, you don't have to be a White Murrican to produce a thin, easy-to-read, extremely appealing story about how a naive, romantic, idealistic member of an oppressive society goes off to solve a personal mystery among a colonized people, Goes Native, Experiences Great Hospitality from the Savages, Saves some of them, Learns to Love Their Culture and participate in their religion, etc., and as a result comes to question some of what she has been inculcated to believe about her own society from birth.

Given what's been going on in China over the last few decades, this may very well be about the best analysis of relations between Tibet and China that can be produced from within China, compatible with, say, not getting locked up or otherwise suffering a horrible life at the hands of the Powers That Be.

That does _not_ mean I have to like it.

While I realize this can also be read as a straight-up star-crossed lovers thing, I would expect my regular readers to recognize that my capacity to appreciate that kind of story could only charitably be described as limited.

ETA: Not to be confused with Blake Kerr's _Sky Burial_, also about Tibet and its relationship/relations with China.

ETA2: FWIW, I may be the only person on the planet with this particular set of reactions to this book, so EXPECT YM to V.

ETA3: And in my defense, can I just say? Nan Talese.

ETA4: NOT the only person to react this way.

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