The Skull Mantra (Tibet)

  • book coverby Eliot Pattison
  • Book courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

Wow. Thanks to Janet for suggesting this amazing mystery novel, set in occupied Tibet. Brilliant writing and well-rounded characters, but I had to keep putting it down. Because I was getting so outraged at the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans. Atrocious. Ongoing. Shameful.

The plot: A prison road crew on a forced construction project finds a headless body. The road crew is composed of Chinese murderers, Tibetan religious prisoners, including an old lama, and the disgraced Chinese Inspector Shan. So Shan is “voluntold” (my term, not in the book) to solve the case for the seemingly inhumane Colonel Tan. Desecration of a Tibetan Buddhist sacred cave is about to follow.

But Wait, It’s Not So Simple

Further characters: American do-gooders, greedy Chinese bureaucrats, whole Tibetan gompas (temples) of Buddhist believer prisoners, scary shamen/sorcerers, barefoot children running around the sky burial zone tended by the untouchable class…this mystery has them all.

free TibetWhat I liked about the characters in the novel–they were conflicted. They were human. Against the stark background of the Chinese rape of Tibet, which is just plain wrong and no two ways about it–the author writes Chinese characters who act in ways that are cruel but then have moments of humanity where you see they’re also victims of the Chinese Communist system.

I liked the scenes in which various prisoners would move to protect the guards, or visa-versa, against all expectation. (One striking aspect of the Tibetan Buddhist religion is that when “the knobs” have the prisoners surrounded, and the Chinese are about to carry out a mass execution, the crowds surrounding the prison start praying–for the souls of the killers.)

Potala Palace, Lhasa
Potala Palace, Lhasa

I liked the scenes where the humanity of seemingly bad characters were revealed. For example, the mean prison Sergeant who keeps Shan under guard while he’s investigating has a dead father that he misses. Sergeant Feng is chubby, and when he discovers that the men call him “Momo” (dumpling) behind his back he’s heartbroken.

I liked the way the author portrayed the Americans bumbling around the mountains trying to protect Tibetan treasures as part of Our World Heritage, meaning well but completely ignorant. For Inspector Shan, their innocence is the most irritating thing about them.

Buddhist monk beaten by Chinese soldierAside from actually travelling to Tibet and meeting all sorts of people, this novel is the next best thing. And a lot safer.

Rating: 5 momo dumplings

One of the best mysteries I’ve picked up in a long, long time. It’s part of a series so I plan to read all the Inspector Shan books now. I’m certain I’ll learn a lot more about Tibet that way.


Free Tibet

The website for the 14th (Dalai Llama): A Force for Good

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