Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Skull Mantra (and a question for readers about political commitment in crime novels)

Yesterday I finished Eliot Pattison's The Skull Mantra, a novel set amid Tibet's high, harsh, wind-buffeted peaks. Then I picked up where I'd left off in Peter Temple's Dead Point and found this:

"I went to bed with my book, Dying High: Lies About a Climber's Life, grabbed on my way out to get a taxi to the airport. There is something about the stupidity of climbing mountains that appeals. Perhaps it's the clinging by the fingertips to inhospitable surfaces. I could claim experience in this area."
A rather sharply contrasting attitude to mountains, is it not, and perhaps understandable from a flatlander like the Australian Temple.

Pattison's novel, winner of an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for best first novel of 1999, has a location of unparalleled interest and exoticism (for many readers). But is has more. For one, it puts a highly unusual spin on the old motif of the unlikely detective pairing. The protagonist, Shan Tao Yun, works with a changing and uncertain roster of partners. Above and beyond the expected squabbles, there are deeper reasons for mutual mistrust and suspicion.
Shan is a Han Chinese official, disgraced and imprisoned at a work camp in Tibet, then given temporary freedom of a kind when officials need an experienced investigator to probe an official's killing. His shifting cast of overseers and helpers includes Chinese and Tibetans, officials and prisoners, uncertain hybrids of the two, monks and soldiers. The clashes of nationalities, politics and sympathies mean Shan can never be sure of his position, whether a given action will land him back in prison, whether Chinese officials are looking over his shoulder and conducting parallel investigations. And that tension pervades the novel from beginning to end.

Political and cultural rivalries are at work, naturally, not just between Chinese and Tibetans, but within both groups. Economic and scientific interests come into play as well, in the form of a Western mining company working against bureaucratic hurdles to meet a production deadline that, among other things, will let it have something to show a soon-to-arrive group of American tourists. All these clashing interests provide, among other things, a wealth of possible suspects.

But above all are the various faces of Tibetan Buddhism, the prayers, the demons, the all-sustaining faith of monks and lay people, the texts, the art, and a sympathetic view of outcast clans whose traditional job is to prepare bodies for "sky burial," all held together by Pattison's strong sympathy for Tibetans. If Clive James was right that most international crime novels, with no original stories to tell, "Essentially .. are guidebooks,” this is one hell of a guidebook.
And now, your question: The Skull Mantra fairly burns with awe for Tibet, its people and its ways, and with anger at China's treatment of all these since the invasion of 1959. How do you feel about strongly expressed opinions of this kind in crime stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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10 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Grins. If the opinions agree with mine...

Seriously, I might have a problem if they didn't. (Note to self: see if Howard Hunt expressed Nixonian attitudes toward law and justice in his books.) I might be too distracted by the political arguments to enjoy the story.

October 29, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

My copy identifies Eliot Pattison as, among other things, a world traveler and a frequent visitor to China. I wonder how frequently he has visited since this book was published.

At least one subsidiary aspect of the novel arguably supports the political status quo in China, but the overriding theme is China's trampling of Tibet. One suspects the authors of books on this subject might have trouble obtaining visas.

I'm sure you're not the only reader who might have have trouble accepting distasteful, strongly expressed political opinions in a work of entertainment. But I suspect that Pattison's stand will find far more supporters than detractors, at least in the West.

October 29, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Peter, thanks for the much more detailed description of The Skull Mantra than I provided, for the excellent commentary, and for responding on my site with your comments.

I found the book's treatment of Tibet to be moving, and also full of nuances, especially in the way that different Tibetans, Chinese residents of Tibet, and foreign visitors, related to the recent, violent history and the tense present. Many, of course, used whatever circumstances they found for personal gain. However, there were redeeming features and other admirable traits in a number of the Chinese, while the Tibetans were by no means perfect (though on the whole the Tibetans are the victims and the heroes). This book had the feel of realism to me, at least on the vast majority of its pages. It certainly made me sad and more aware, even though I thought I understood something about the history going into it (I was a little naive, though).

I'm glad to read your blog again. I've either been writing my environmental blog, fighting computer problems, or working my real job lately, and have lost momentum with both reading fiction and discussing it. Perhaps I'll pick up speed this holiday. Still, I have probably 3 recent reads that merit review- soon I hope.

Cheers,

Jim
http://nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com/
http://greenchemistry.wordpress.com/

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

I suppose I should answer your question! I think it would be wrong to avoid the politics that this book takes on. That would be more voyeurism, and rather heartless, than the author's actual approach.

I found Joseph Kanon to be a bit overbearing with the politics in his difficult Holocaust-related stories, The Good German and Alibi. These were just too horrible for me to read with them with "pleasure", though they were pretty successful as novels in many ways.

I found "regular" fiction fit these most serious of settings better than crime fiction in many cases (The Archivist and The Revisionist being two examples of excellent fiction on the topic of The Holocaust).

Perhaps lot of this, for me, has to do with the balance or lack of balance between "entertainment" and commentary, with polemics seeming irresistable for some and exploitation just as easy a trap to fall into. Fiction that isn't intended as entertainment seems more appropriate in some of these difficult political cases. But, Pattison pulled managed to write a rather special crime novel, given its depth and layers.

Speaking of China, my business partner just visted Beijing, and on the literature for the conference he attended, Tiananmin square was listed as a "favorite tourist attraction". It may be true, but it turned my stomach.

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

The nuances in Pattison's treatment of the Chinese are especially noticeable. I was tempted at first to think of that as formulaic and sentimental, but I now suspect that rather than intending merely to show that some Chinese officials are good, Pattison was making the political point that a Chinese prison official sent to Tibet may well have a certain sympathy with the prisoners he is supposed to guard. All, after all, are exiles of a kind, far from the center of things. And yes, Pattison lets his characters speak strongly and accusingly about Shan's young assistant abandoning his Tibetan roots.

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Perhaps "regular" fiction accommodates politics more easily than crime fiction does because politics (or romance, or subplots of any other kind) can easily interfere with the crime. One reason Death of a Red Heroine (Qiu Xiaolong) works so well is that the denouement is so tied up with how the Communist Party operates in China.

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Exactly! I was thinking of Qiu Xiaolong when I wrote my comment.

I guess one conclusion is that we are lucky to have so many writers who can work in crime fiction and also tackle large themes, and if others try and fail, for them it may be better than not trying at all.

Jim
http://nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com/

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I seem to recall Qiu's telling an interviewer that, though he enjoyed reading crime novels, he had not set out to write one. By his own account, then, Qiu was not a crime writer who also decided to take on a larger theme. Nor was he exactly a serious writer who condescended to write a crime novel. I suppose a crime novel seemed the right way to say what he had to say about 1990s Shanghai.

It's interesting that both Eliot Pattison and Qiu are outsiders of a kind (Qiu started writing crime novels about China only after he had left.) I don't know what, if any, popular crime fiction exists in China and, if it does exist, whether its writers have the same impulse to examine society through their books. Sure, they might not publish books like Qiu's and Pattison's, but I wonder if they might write about official corruption, for instance.

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Qiu lives in St. Louis and teaches at Washington University (where I used to be on the Chemistry faculty). I know quite a few people in the local Chinese community, and keep hoping to meet him. I can probably email him and point him to your blog to see if he is willing to comment. I'll try... Jim
http://nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com/
http://greenchemistry.wordpress.com/

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Now, that would be way cool. I'll have to get off my butt and read his fourth novel!

November 22, 2007  

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