‘The Handsome Monk’ by Tsering Döndrup (Review)

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many books from Columbia University Press, and the majority of these have come from their excellent Weatherhead Books on Asia series.  This range includes a variety of literary and non-fiction works from Japan, Korea and China including such favourites of mine as Natsume Sōseki’s Light and Dark, O Chonghui’s River of Fire and Other Stories and Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls.  However today’s choice, the latest from this series, takes us in a slightly different cultural direction.  This time we’re heading to Tibet, and while there are monks and yaks featured in these stories, there’s a whole lot more besides.  Let’s take a look at life in the mountains, where grazing land can be a matter of life and death and where lamas (not llamas) are as common a sight as Chinese soldiers…

*****
Tsering Döndrup’s The Handsome Monk and Other Stories (translated by Christopher Peacock, with one story translated by Lauran Hartley – review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of stories taken from throughout the career of the Tibetan writer.  Peacock provides a handy introduction to Döndrup, as well as to his major themes and the background of modern Tibetan society and integration into China, topics that come up in several of the stories.

The Handsome Monk includes fifteen stories, but there’s a great variety in style and length, with a number of shorter stories, including a few stretching to just a few pages.  It’s evident from the first page of the opening piece, ‘The Disturbance in D-Camp’, that this isn’t your standard set of short stories, when a clan leader rides around to announce a meeting:

Sökyab, the head of D- Camp was up early.  Riding a black yak, he passed by every family’s door.  “Soon as you’ve put the cattle out, the head of each family get to my house for a meeting!” he called out as he went.  The yak’s lips had turned completely white from the frost, and it was panting heavily.  From a distance, it looked like two columns of white smoke were spouting from its nostrils.
‘The Disturbance in D-Camp’, p.17 (Columbia University Press, 2019)

The man on the yak is demanding money for religious buildings, with those who refuse to pay liable to be kicked out of the camp.  There’s one thing the leader hasn’t considered, though – what if nobody coughs up?

It’s an amusing tale, and the humour continues elsewhere, even if at times it comes mixed with elements of speculatve fiction and traditonal Tibetan beliefs.  This last theme is highlighted in two stories featuring life beyond the grave, and the Lord of Death himself.  In ‘A Show to Delight the Masses’, a county governor finds himself being tried for his life in the Lord’s castle, with a cherub as his defence lawyer and a rather more demonic figure (armed with a lot of incriminating evidence) acting for the prosecution.  Then, in ‘One Mani’, we get to see more of the rather bureaucratic side of Death Inc:

The Lord of Death’s offices were loacted in a newly built Western-style high-rise next to the former law courts.  The building was divided into five large departments.  Each employee had a computer in front of them, and each computer formed part of an online network with access to a database that exhaustively recorded and calculated all the virtues and vices and good and evil thoughts of all the departed souls from the five continents of the earth.  It is said that on average each employee could process the virtues and vices and good and evil thoughts of one departed soul and send them to the appropriate destination – be that the Blissful Western Realm or the worlds of the Six Beings – within thirty seconds.
‘One Mani’, p.111

This one focuses on a man’s noble gesture of giving his friend the only prayer he’s ever said, hoping to bump him up to the magical one hundred million mark.  However, once the pair enter the Ministry of Death, the story plays out rather differently to how the two had imagined.

Döndrup does have a more serious side, though, and some of the more realistic pieces examine the effects of modern life on traditional culture.  ‘Mahjong’ shows how gambling is introduced to the writer’s home region while ‘Nose Rings’ takes a more serious look at the topic, with a young man so addicted to the game that he’s tempted to kill someone to pay off his debts.  Yet even in a modern world, there are still some people who remain unimpressed with the modern world, such as the hero of ‘The Last Man to Care for His Parents’, who spends his whole life… well, you know…

The main attractions of The Handsome Monk are the few longer stories, and one of these is the title piece, the story of a man and his fall from grace.  Having become disillusioned with the life of a monk, our good-looking friend decides to flee the monastery and ends up getting together with a caring prostitute down in the county town.  The story is set against the background of pasture wars between tribes, and his decline is linked to his fear of being discovered and forced to fight (a topic covered in a later story, ‘Brothers’).  Just as it seems that he’s about to hit his nadir, there’s a twist in the tale, showing us that our friend might just have a future as a monk after all.

One of the highlights of the book is ‘Ralo’, a wonderful two-part novella-length effort.  The writer himself appears in this one, recounting the tale of an old school friend who can’t quite seem to get on in life.  From his days as a snot-nosed misfit at school, to his failed attempts to find work and wedded bliss, there’s a repeated tendency that stops Ralo from achieving happiness:

At first Ralo worked diligently and his house really seemed like a home, but as soon as he had clothes on his back and food in his belly, the seeds of laziness gradually sprouted again.  He stopped tending the livestock, stopped working, and went into town to idle around.
‘Ralo’, p.41

The first part has our ‘hero’ seeking the writer’s help when his wife goes missing, a story that (predictably) doesn’t end well for him.  The second half, set and written years later, then sees the two men reunited, this time in prison.  Döndrup tells the reader all about their time in the clink, interspersing the various ordeals with details of a trip to Lhasa that Ralo makes with his family – all highly entertaining stuff.

‘Ralo’ ties together all the themes the writer uses in The Handsome Monk.  There’s lots of humour, usually at Ralo’s expense, as he finds and loses wives while being cheated by all around him.  However, the story can also be brutal in places, with sudden twists and betrayal, as well as the pathos caused by several tragic, unexpected deaths.  There’s also a return to the theme of corruption when we learn that he was imprisoned wrongly and has spent time in prison for a crime he didn’t even commit.

The unfairness of life is also covered in the last long piece, ‘Black Fox Valley’, in which a nomadic family accepts an offer to move to government housing in the county town.  It’s a deal that seems too good to be true, and of course it is, meaning the country folk soon regret their move to civilisation.  It’s not just adjusting to a new way of life that proves difficult.  The initial joy soon turns to despair when they’re confronted with leaky roofs and unplumbed toilets, and that’s just the start of their woes.  However, it’s what they find when they return to their beautiful home that really finishes them off – it turns out that it really is hard to go back once you leave.

The Handsome Monk is an excellent collection, with the mix of short pieces and longer, more involved stories working well.  Peacock’s prose never falters, and writer and translator combine nicely to create a work of humour and insights into a place few Anglophone readers would have encountered, in real-life or in fiction.  It’s a book I’m happy to recommend, and I’d certainly love to see more of his work in English.  In his introduction, Peacock remarks that Döndrup has also had four novels published, so if the Weatherhead people are listening, I might have an idea for a future release…

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