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Himalayan descent

Tibet, Tibet A Personal History of a Lost Land Patrick French Alfred A. Knopf: 330 pp., $25

October 19, 2003|Pico Iyer | Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of the novel "Abandon" and a forthcoming book of travels, "Sun After Dark."

Patrick FRENCH'S first book, "Younghusband," was for me one of the stunning revelations of recent years. Not yet 30, the spirited young writer followed his subject so fearlessly into the Himalayas, and so deeply into archives overlooked by everyone else, that he threw light, somehow, on some essential truth of Britain's surprising encounters with the world at large. His theme -- a classic man of Empire who, having led a bloody advance on Lhasa, went for a walk on his last evening in the Tibetan capital and had so blinding a mystical vision that he threw over his career and set up a World Congress of Faiths, returning home to write spiritual tracts in which he depicted himself as an Indian -- was rich and irresistible. But deeper than that, French wrote with such effortless charm and self-effacement, and evinced a historical intuition so uncanny and mature, that he began to explain something much broader than just Sir Francis Younghusband and to open up corners of Rudyard Kipling and Paul Scott.

Not the least of the 1997 book's fascinations derived from the fact that the young biographer seemed, in his unobtrusive way, to be very much a Younghusband redux, a product of the British ruling orders drawn toward everything that was the opposite of his background. He did not write off the early 20th century mystic as a crank, as many might, but instead went so far as to suggest that Younghusband's openness to beliefs not his own was, in its way, as heroic as his intrepid forays onto the Himalayan plateau. Younghusband was never more an exemplar of Britain, one came to feel, than in his willingness to go imaginatively native.

French's two subsequent works -- "The Life of Henry Norman" and an account of India's movement toward independence, "Liberty or Death" -- showed him moving beyond the intoxicating sense of discovery of that first book to something more serious, even iconoclastic. Turning an eye on the Anglo-Indian romance so beloved of PBS dramas, he brought a lively skepticism to both Winston Churchill and Mohandas K. Gandhi, as if to show that the emperor had no clothes, even if Gandhi was wearing nothing but a loincloth. While "Younghusband" portrayed a potential figure of fun in a movingly sympathetic light, "Liberty or Death" showed how heroes might look to their valets. French came to seem that oddest of creatures, a goodhearted debunker.

In his new book "Tibet, Tibet," he pursues that impulse into the heart of the country that loomed at the center of his first book and, in a sense, into the very spirit of buoyancy and hopefulness that it enshrined. The new work stitches together an unflinching account of the author's 2 1/2-month journey across Tibet in 1999 with an exhaustive excavation of historical resources designed to show that Tibet was never the peace-loving paradise so many generations of well-wishers have longed for it to be. In effect, the book offers the general reader a digest of the latest wave of revisionist scholarship about Tibet, advanced by Donald S. Lopez, Melvyn Goldstein and Tsering Shakya, and aims to tear down all the myths long associated with Shangri-La (and, in the process, to suggest that those myths are part of what accounts for the suffering of the country today).

More profoundly, the book tells a personal story that is no less poignant in its implications. At one early point, French writes of how his travels in Tibet so violently contravened his expectations that he threw out the "material put out by Western pro-Tibet groups, much of which I had read and some of which I had written." Near the end, the man who actually had given his elder son the Tibetan name Tenzin tells us that, on returning to England, he stepped down as director of the British-based Free Tibet Campaign. (The Dalai Lama, it's worth noting, has not called for a "free Tibet" -- only a saved one -- for at least 15 years.) At some level, the book is not just about the loss of paradise but also about innocence lost; it is, in effect, the anguished story of how French could no longer sustain the optimistic views he once shared with Younghusband. There is a sense, the more powerful for being unvoiced throughout, of someone's falling out of love with a culture that once changed his life and now gathering ammunition for divorce court.

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