Conjuring Tibet is an affecting documentary novel about present-day Tibet under Chinese rule. It is a remarkable literary achievement that weaves together fact and fiction to depict a land held in bondage.
The mise en scène the author employs is a jeep that has been hired to carry six individuals who have different reasons for traveling from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, westward into Tibet. The passengers are Chinese and Tibetan—except for the author, a diarist obsessed by the notebook into which she pours all that she sees, hears and thinks. The character Painter creates for herself is unbiased and open to each experience she records. She tells us on the second page:
“I was looking for a path through the imagination, which Einstein said is better than knowledge, to a ground where no boundaries hinder the mind. I anticipated experience of one of the last far places on earth untainted by the debris of tourism. . . . [I wanted] to conjure a place where one may find some proof of rare qualities in oneself or enter a spell in which some insight occurs, in a reign of peace, a feast of the soul.”
The Tibet that Painter found was quite different from the one she’d sought. Yet she records with a dispassionate voice, thus drawing forth the reader’s own emotions. Her other characters, who represent a spectrum of political and cultural forces reshaping Tibet, observe their situations in the same matter-of-fact way. The story is revealed in textured and layered prose, producing a complex interleaving of events, memories and myths.
The writer’s traveling companions include the jeep’s driver, Mr. Fu, a politically astute Tibetan who has adopted a Chinese identity; Lama Mingme, an émigré Tibetan with a Nepalese surname and passport; Dorje, a young woman from Hong Kong who is a Chinese interpreter and a student of Buddhism; and Dorje’s mother and aunt, tourists who have chosen Tibet for their holiday outing. Other important characters in the narrative are the Chinese commander Bao, who runs a nuclear dumping site in a deep mine, worked principally by Tibetan prisoners who are losing their skin; Bodhi and Youngden, Tibetan students on a mission for Amnesty International to investigate Bao’s operation; and the Tibetan seer Khandro, miraculous in her feats as she eludes her Chinese persecutors.
Reading Conjuring Tibet produces the same chilling reaction as does reading Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Clockwork Orange or 1984. Each relates the anguish of a society enthralled by alien or native forces. In these stories, fiction and “fact” comingle to project the strange and unknown in frightfully realistic ways.
The citizens of 1984 live their lives under the ever-vigilant eye of Big Brother and the suffocating policies of the ruling Party. Its author, George Orwell, created the diabolical language Newspeak, which allowed expression only of ideas that were consistent with the Party’s policies; the people lacked even the basic vocabulary by which to disagree, much less by which to formulate rebellion. Conjuring Tibet reveals an eerie resemblance between the Chinese treatment of the Tibetan landscape and the treatment of language in 1984. In each case, a cultural essential is cruelly manipulated to subdue a people. As the Tibetan landscape is pillaged and raped, the Tibetans become entrapped in a cultural vacuum created by the loss of those features of the natural world that have nurtured the myths, beliefs and practices of their culture. To wit, the sacred forest of Kham has been egregiously logged. Having arrived there, the narrator says:
“How do we know it? Only from the old map I brought along, which shows names no longer in use, rivers that have run dry, the kind of map that in the times of the great explorations used to contain landmarks like: ‘Here be monsters, here be dragons.’ The map shows a gigantic forested area.
Broad stumps cover the entire mountainside. As the rutted road winds upward, acre after acre, mile after mile bear witness to clear cutting. A rotten pine stands alone, lopsided, on a cliff side. Ragged bushes strew the mountain slopes; the soil erupts in perpendicular spines of erosion. A long vertical gap upturns the roots of severed trees.”
It is no secret that the Chinese military has taken outrageous liberties in its goal to reduce Tibet to vassalage. Reports reveal atrocities committed against the land and its people—the suppression of religious activities, the forced labor of prisoners and children, the dumping of nuclear waste, and the logging of forests, to name a few.
Against a background of logging, dumping, poisoning and bombing, Painter asks us to contemplate the Dalai Lama’s program for the transformation of Tibet into a zone of peace and nonviolence. His vision of Tibet is of the place the author had set out to find. In time one feels that vision surely will be realized.