Flowers and Dust

Irony and brilliance in Tibetan literature.

Red Poppies, by Alai
(translated by Howard Goldblatt [& Sylvia Li-chun Lin???])
Penguin Books, India, New Delhi, 2002
416 pages, ISBN: 0-14-302849-9. (INR 295)

Reviewed by Kabir Mansingh Heimsath

Red Poppies is a deceptively simple novel. We get sentences such as "I am an idiot" standing alone as paragraphs and descriptions of a girl's breasts as "a pair of frightened little rabbits". But just as the supposed idiocy of the narrator contrasts with his flashes of wisdom, so there is an intentional dissonance in the politics, allusions, style and opinions of the author, Alai. If at first this seems just a crazy tale of love and war in the feudal highlands, the story insidiously works its way into being the contemporary masterpiece of Tibetan literature.

The recognition of literature from this otherwise immensely popular part of the world as exactly that, literature – not journalism, political commentary, religious text or human-interest story – does not come easy. This difficulty certainly has to do with a relative lack of Tibetan fiction (written in any language) but it also has to do with an emphasis on the religious, historical and political over the literary. In Kathmandu, the book, which was completely sold out in its hardback version at major bookstores in Oxford, London, Boston and New York, did not elicit any recognition from the normally knowledgeable manager of a bookstore specialising in things Tibetan. At last she vaguely recollected some new novel that was tucked into a small shelf in the back with a few East Asian paperbacks, Sorrows of War, Wild Swans and Shanghai Baby. For most people, including the bookstore proprietor, Tibet and novels just do not go together, even less so if the novel has been written in Chinese.

As many scholars have recently pointed out, international interest in Tibet has focused on very particular religious and mystical elements of its culture that have been deemed valuable and endangered, to the unfortunate neglect of other important aspects, including secular literature. Since the early 1980s, the publications of writers such as Dhondrup Gyal and Tashi Dawa have been immensely popular within Tibet, but little has come out to the exile or international community. While writers such as Jamyang Norbu (Mandala of Sherlock Holmes) and Patrick French (Younghusband, and Tibet Tibet) have been hailed in India, the writers from Tibet itself have remained in relative obscurity. This is changing now as scholars, translators, and an interested international community slowly realise that Tibet is an extant and culturally vital place. There is also a reluctant but inevitable acceptance of Chinese as a language that Tibetans may utilise, just as Indian writers have thrived writing in English. Two collections of poems and short stories from Tibet have been recently published (Tales of Tibet: Sky Burials, Prayer Wheels, and Wind Horses edited and translated by Herbert J Batt in 2001, and Song of the Snow Lion edited by Manoa's Frank Stewart in 2000) and Alai's full-length novel is a fresh breeze, if not a whirlwind, in the literary offerings from Tibet now available in translation.

Frozen tradition
Red Poppies is set in the eastern Tibetan region of Kham during the first half of the 20th century. Many areas of Kham and Amdo, not close geographically or politically to either the Chinese or Tibetan administrative centres, were ruled during this time as independent kingdoms. Though the setting of this story is crucial, there is no pretence of it being historical in any strict sense. Real place names and dates are left out and there is an almost flippant attitude towards the happenings of the world. The story opens one snowy spring morning in the estate of Maichi; the chieftain and the elder son have gone over the mountains to request military help from the Chinese, but the reader is with the younger, idiot, son, who frolics in bed. In the first chapter we hear,

Indent Since earliest childhood, I never understood why the land of the Chinese was not only the source of our much-needed silk, tea, and salt, but also the source of power for Chieftain clans. Someone once told me that it was because of weather. I said, "oh, because of weather". But deep down I was thinking, Maybe so, but weather can't be the only reason. If so, why didn't the weather change me into something else? As far as I know, every place has weather. There's fog, and the wind blows. When the wind is hot, the snow becomes rain. Then the wind turns cold, and the rain freezes into snow. Weather causes changes in everything. You stare wide-eyed at something, and just when it's about to change into something else, you have to blink. And in that instant everything returns to its original form.

Clearly, Alai and the idiot son have priorities other than politics.

The metaphor is not just a politically correct way for Alai as a writer in China to deal with a sensitive topic but also sets the sarcastic tone for the entire story. When an emissary of the Chinese republic who has supplied machine guns to the Maichis and is encouraging them to grow poppies for opium sits under a plaque from the Qin emperor that pronounces "INSTRUCT AND ASSIMILATE BARBARIANS" the irony is intentional. We know for whom the plaque was intended and for whom it is applicable.

There is a sense that the Tibetans find the Chinese to be somewhat weak in character and culture but unfortunately strong at times in military and money. Dealings with them are inevitably blemished, "You've already tainted your reputation by seeking help from the Han Chinese. You have violated the rules, so how can you expect to preserve your name?" and a latent racism runs through the story. When the Chinese emissary makes a gift of opium paraphernalia to the chieftain's wife, she asks, "Why didn't he give this to the Chieftain?" The Tibetan maidservant answers, "Maybe he's in love with you. After all, Mistress is also a Han". The narrator's mother is also a Han Chinese wife of the chieftain. She was a prostitute gifted to the Maichi Chieftain, who had drunken sex and then married her when it became clear she was carrying his child. Not exactly a flattering view of the Chinese mother(land?). There is no question that these are Tibetans and anyone else is looked upon with a mild disdain. Political alliances are made for the sake of expediency, but not out of any real tie to China itself. As events play out, the communist-nationalist civil war is discussed in terms of "Red" and "White" as if the problem is not about ideology or strategy but simply about whether it is going to rain or snow.

Lhasa, meanwhile, is far away and exerts no political influence over this region. The one character that hails from central Tibet ends up retreating to a cave and gets his tongue cut out. A woman who returns from an arduous pilgrimage to the holy city is scorned and thrown out of the house in which she suckled the younger son. There is a fierce pride in local clans, tradition and the land itself that does not seem to include any such greater "Tibet" even in the face of Chinese invasion. An exile Tibetan activist once complained about how post-modernists were busy deconstructing the 'nation' while the Tibetans were fighting just to get one recognised. Alai's portrayal is definitely post-modern (or pre-modern) and also that of the borderlands; his characters take pride in a genuine identity that has nothing to do with a nation of any kind. The structure and institutions change around and within the Maichi fiefdom, but there is a strong sense that these are just changes moving across a land and people that will remain, whatever the weather.

Without over-reading, it is easy to see several parallels between the climate of Alai's fictional fiefdom of early 20th century Kham and contemporary China. The most striking similarity is the sense of change, of imminent happenings that pervade both the novel and mainland China. This is a common theme in world literature but it will be unfamiliar to those who have tried to become acquainted with Tibet. In almost any other context – scholarly, Buddhist, political, journalistic or even the little fiction from exile – Tibet is presented as a land stood still, static and peaceful and secure in its traditions prior to the Chinese invasion. Not so in Red Poppies. From the very first pages Alai draws a sense of tension, not calmness, "This waiting was always accompanied by fearful anxiety. The cascading water splashing on the flagstones four storeys below made her quaver, since it produced the shuddering sensation of a body splattering on the hard ground". A sense of mistrust and unease pervades even as the kingdom/country becomes more and more powerful. As someone who grew up during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Alai's preoccupation with erratic displays of human cruelty and weakness is understandable.

The idiot, and most young Chinese, are frustrated with the customs and traditions that have been in place for too long. Yet there is also a suspicion of the trends forcing themselves from outside. The idiot realises, and his chieftain father grudgingly concedes, that the way of the future has less to do with military might and more with economic astuteness. China's embrace of market capitalism is mixed with a distinct nostalgia for a more unambiguous and noble, if imagined, past. In Red Poppies, competition between the brothers centres on one who sticks to old standards of heroism and power and another who is open to change and able to foresee the trends of history, mimicking the current politicking going on in Communist Party circles. The Maichi Chieftain's half-successful attempts to reconcile between hard-line and reformist sons also reflects the position of recent Chinese patriarchs with respect to their successors. The scepticism, or even cynicism, with which the idiot views the entrenched authority of his family is also familiar to post-Cultural Revolution Chinese and Tibetans. This has less to do with one institution or another and more to do with wariness towards authority in any form. It is important to realise the tone has nothing to do with the denigration of "old" Tibetan in favour of "new" Chinese, but only the criticism of entrenched ideas of any kind. The much applauded father of contemporary Tibetan literature, Dhondrup Gyal, wrote a story called "The Flower Killed by Frost" in which the frost of old traditions and values kills the flower of love between two innocent lovers. Similarly, but not without extra irony, Alai's 'smart' characters are unable to cope with change (which, to mix metaphors, comes in the form of flowers) because of their entrenched attitudes, while the 'idiot' muddles through the confusion with a wisdom born from impudence.

Epic intrigues
In terms of material it is hard to imagine a more exciting combination: noble families, sons coming of age, beautiful princesses, love and sex (only rarely together), battles and intrigue, opium, daggers, horses and machine guns… all in the vast grasslands of eastern Tibet. The book has already been adapted into a Chinese TV serial. It will not be feel-good war story in Hollywood or Madame Mao's propaganda style but rather more film-noir with violence erupting when least expected, quirky camera perspectives, and an anti-hero stumbling through the tumult of reality. In some ways the plot is the most traditional aspect of the book, not just in terms of love and war, but also in its similarity to the oral epic of King Gesar of Ling. This collection of somewhat savage legends about Tibet's ancient warrior king, his minister, his horse and various women and enemies is especially relevant to the area of Kham from which Alai hails. The stories of King Gesar offer an alternative to the more conventional Buddhist histories of Tibet and are decidedly violent and fiercely regional in tone. These days so much writing about Tibet seeks out the mystical; Alai seems to tease us even when admitting the fantastic,

…we received reliable information that a large group of shamans working for Chieftain Wangpo was gathering at the southern border to prepare curses for the Maichi family.
An extraordinary war was about to begin….
The magic was spectacular, but I was bored – the sky was as clear as if it had been washed, and I couldn't see any meteorological changes.

While there is no denying the excitement, it is hard to miss the seriousness of his book. Alai confronts difficult questions that an action writer would simply gloss, and even seems eager, with his idiot's voice, to comment on some of the more problematic relations of society. Those who are generally called "servants" in most English writing dealing with Tibet are referred to as slaves or even livestock. The immense authority of the chieftain in his own lands and the inequalities of traditional Tibetan society are laid bare. This is not class-criticism in the communist style though, the mutual friendship and responsibility that exists between the so-called slaves and the aristocratic family is as evident as the exploitation and abuse. Communist ideology is irrelevant here and it is the chieftains themselves, not the masses, who bring about the destruction of the noble families. Other attitudes that reek of chauvinism are those towards women and Han Chinese; but even here Alai displays a sensitivity through the idiot that questions, and implicitly comments upon, what might be considered the standards of society.

The Chieftain's second, shrivelled, drug-addicted, rat-eating, Han Chinese prostitute of a wife might seem a formulaic character except that she is also a loving mother, a competent manager and a trusted confidant who, above all, has an individual personality. When things approach climax and just about everybody in the story has betrayed everybody else, she remains the locus of love and loyalty to more than one sordid Tibetan man. This is no cartoon evil witch but an individual brought to life in the midst of a tumultuous adventure. Another Han character who initially seems a stereotypical arch villain re-emerges as a genuine friend and advisor at a time when close ties are being severed. There is no question that this is a tale of Tibet, but it is even more so a story of humans – of growing old, love, jealousy, betrayal, cruelty and affection. In this way Alai does not write of the 'Tibet' that foreign readers have come to expect, but rather as a place as unique and real as any other, as his home.

The tone of Alai's writing is difficult to place, which is what makes this a great novel in addition to an enthralling one. Discussions with those who read Chinese suggest that the eccentric ease of Howard Golblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin's translation is faithful to the innovative technique of the original. There is an almost humorous cruelty here that is disconcerting but somehow cumulatively conveys a rough tenderness for his place and time, "Only with me could she wave her ladle with such style in front of a mob of starving people who were staring hungrily at her hand". Alai manages to evoke the tragic (but all-too common) paradox of wealth in the midst of famine with this simple but sinister turn of phrase.

The use of an idiot as narrator is of course notable, but Alai's reliance on his voice is as casual as the hero's own idiocy.

Indent: Once in a while I wanted to look smart. The Chieftain had clearly intended for his sons to compete with each other, mainly to see if his idiot son was more capable than his brother of becoming the next Chieftain. I'd seen through his intent, and boldly said so.

But the words were barely out of my mouth when the mistress turned to the Chieftain, and said, 'Your younger son is truly an idiot.' She slapped me again.
'Mistress,' my brother said, 'what good does that do? He'll still be an idiot no matter how much you hit him.
Mother walked over to the window to look outside, while I stared at my brother's smart face and smiled foolishly.
He burst out laughing, even though nothing funny had happened.

Alai is not careless towards his writing but rather takes advantage of this nimble voice to break away from tradition and create a perspective that does not pretend to be entirely of one time and place. The idiot is a trickster character who takes the role of leading protagonist as well as a narrator who is often absurd — the unusual combination gives this story its peculiar yet intense flavour.

The irreverence with which Buddhism is treated will strike those who have the standard misty image of Tibet. The violence is graphic and in far more evidence than any spirituality,

In my tale, two people deserved to die, a man and a woman. But only the man had died. His mouth was open, as if he were confused about all that had happened. My brother stuffed a green berry into the dead man's mouth to improve its appearance.

After a series of murders and suicides that result from raw lust, this: "From then on, the incinerated woman and her sons entered my father's nightmares, and his only path to tranquillity was to hold a large-scale Buddhist ceremony". While rituals seem efficacious in obtaining sleep, another episode seems to convey the ultimate futility of belief,

When they first appeared , I often heard the buzzing of muted prayers, but that had stopped. Now they simply died, one after another. They died by the creek and were baked by the sun, swelled up like bloated sacks that were carried on the water to edge of heaven.

There are four religious figures in the story and each is quite distinct but none especially favourable. The family's lama and the head of a nearby monastery are used only as pragmatic magicians or ritualists and each competes for the chieftain's favour in sometimes childish and petty ways. The third, a monk from central Tibet, enters the tale at the same time as the fourth, a British Christian missionary, and the comparison between the two is explicit. Each unsuccessfully tries to convert the locals to his creed. While most of the locals find the Englishman likeable, they take an immediate aversion to the monk-scholar from Lhasa and his particularly puritanical school of Buddhism. The Englishman rides away on a mule but the Lhasa monk ends up in a dungeon, and finally his tongue is extracted for his arrogance. When this monk, incidentally named Wangpo Yeshe –  'Powerful Wisdom' is humiliated it is clear that neither Lhasa nor its big religious institutions have much authority in these grasslands.

Later, the tongue-less Wangpo Yeshe becomes the official historian – is Alai restoring voice to a mutilated but still active monastic institution? Or is he commenting on the persistence of true scholars in the face of persecution (so recently experienced in China)? Or is he just being caustic towards the role of both monk and historian,

I'd wanted to take the tongueless historian, but Father said no. 'I'll send him as soon as either one of you can prove you deserve someone like him.'
'What if we both deserve it? I asked. 'We don't have two historians.'
'That's easy. I'll grab another arrogant scholar and cut out his tongue'.

As a writer, Alai is obviously aware of the precarious position that scholars hold in the presentation of 'facts', especially in contemporary China. In several instances the 'idiot' comments on the value of historiography and the importance of having an impartial writer to witness events in person; and it is to his benefit that Wangpo Yeshe survives the mutilation and becomes his trusted, if speechless, friend.

The final and 49th chapter of the English edition is subtitled with the name of the original Chinese publication – 'The Dust Settles'. Again, the irony is explicit when the coming of Red Chinese and the destruction of the Maichi estate are evoked with a sense of calm and closure. But, the 49th day also marks the end of the passage between death and rebirth, the bardo: Alai has written Red Poppies as the first part of a trilogy.

The standard perspective on Tibet has the chaos beginning with the Chinese invasion in 1950, but in this story the frightening transition occurs within the Maichi family prior to the coming of the communists. To be sure, the implements of destruction are from China – the opium trade, modern weapons and even disease – but the corrosive agents are Tibetans themselves. Blood feuds, betrayal, decadence and other human foibles take their toll before any real destruction from the communists. Syphilis comes with Chinese prostitutes, but it is the decadence and ignorance of Tibetan chieftains that enables it to spread.

All this political allusion and interpretation is demanded by the place and time, but the heart of this novel unquestionably resides in its characters. As mentioned, Alai and his narrator are generally dismissive of outer events and it is individual thoughts and relations that take priority. In a characteristically ruthless moment (emphasis in original),

Indent: I really was lonely. So too were the Chieftan, the future Chieftain, and the Chieftain's wives, now that there were no wars, no holidays, and no reason to punish the servants. Suddenly I understood why Father kept creating incidents: over the defection of a minor fortress, he'd gone inland to petition the provincial government, planted opium, and ordered his soldiers to undergo a new style of training; over a woman, he'd killed a loyal headman; and he'd let monks fight over favours, like women do. But understanding this didn't lessen my loneliness.

The killing, starvation, and betrayal proceed, after all, from our own emotions and afflictions. Yet even while understanding this we still continue to feel the same pain and produce the same causes that bring about the cycle of life and death. The dust in chapter 49 arises from the destruction of the estate and contains the remains of the Chieftain and his family. It rises in a small whirlwind up to the sky… but, as the Red Army moves over the next pass, the remains drifts down to settle on the same stones and the same land from whence they came. There is a saying in Tibetan, "The clouds move past, but the sky remains". Despite severe changes in the weather Tibetans are still very much present in Tibet, and they can look forward to the coming incarnations of this brilliant story.

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