The Open Road (thoughts)
I know: three nonfiction reviews in a row! But I happened to have already written this post, and my brain is too fibro-fuzzy today to write about The Evil Genius like I had planned. I’m trying to get in the habit of having a few days worth of posts in reserve for moments like this, but so far that habit has yet to materialise! Hopefully, tomorrow I’ll be feeling more normal. -Eva
Sometimes, serendipitous library browsing turns up a new favourite author. Those times are to be treasured, especially when the author has an extensive backlist. And after The Open Road, I suspect Pico Iyer will soon be in my sidebar! Nothing like giving away the ending at the beginning, eh? But I think anyone with the remotest interest in travel, other cultures, globalisation, or the Dalai Lama will love this book. Now let’s see why. ;)
Iyer has known the Dalai Lama since he was young, due to his father. This book draws on that thirty years of knowledge, and on Iyer’s experiences as a journalist following the Dalai Lama on some of this trips. Interwoven with this are interviews with other Tibetans (both ones in power and ‘everyday’ people of the diaspora), Iyer’s travels to both Mcleod Ganj and Chinese-occupied Tibet, sketches of the ‘modern’ history of Tibet, a general introduction to Buddhism, and descriptions of what the Chinese are doing there. Iyer’s writing style is marvelous, as one might expect of the son of an Oxford don who himself attended Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. Here’s a taste:
The Dalai Lama, by contrast, is saying, “Please.” Please help my peple in Tibet even though you may seem to lose the support of the world’s largest nation in the short term. Please rise to your highest selves in seeing that responsibility is an assertion of enlightened self-interest. Please try to see that if you think we really inhabit a global universe, then your welfare depends on that of Tibet, as much as its welfare depends on you.
No one likes to hear a plea, especially from a guest, and least of all from a man she likes and respects; the natural impulse is to look past the plea to the liking and respecting (especially if that man seems so in command of himself and his philosophy that it’s easy to imagine he can help you much more than you can help him). The very fact that the Dalai Lama tells the world he needs it moves many in the world to assume that he must, in fact, be above it.
This isn’t really a biography of the Dalai Lama; instead, it’s a look at what it’s like to simultaneously be the leader of a culture that’s being crushed and one of the best-known figures in the Western world, all in the context of the technology, culture, and politics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But Iyer does bring the Dalai Lama to life; I especially like how he looked at his public appearances ‘behind the curtain,’ so to speak. And Iyer obviously has a deep respect for the Dalai Lama, which comes through in his writing. Also, he provides an annotated reading list at the end, in case you want to learn more about the Dalai Lama or Tibet! He also doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to the current situation in Tibet, which I appreciate. He looks at the most obvious problems of the Chinese occupation:
…Amdo, the province in eastern Tibet where the current Dalai Lama was born, was turned into the largest gulag in the world, set up to accommodate as many as ten million prisoners. One in every five Tibetans-more than a million in all-died of starvation or in direct encounters with the Chinese, according to Tibetan estimates. one in ten found himself in jail, while all but thirteen of the more than six thousand monasteries in Tibet were laid waste and centuries-old scriptures were incinerated. Parents were forced to applaud as their children were shot.
In recent years, more details of what the International Commission of Jurists described at the time as a “genocide” have come to light, as have the stories of many of those who escaped at last from incarceration. …Yet what we tend to notice, too often, are the larger-than-life contours of the story, and not the brutal realities that we can do something to transform.
But he also looks at the more subtle ones, especially the effect of official policy encouraging Han Chinese to settle Tibet:
By the time I made my third trip to Tibet, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, I could not even recognize the country I had visited twice before. The Potala Palace was not visible from most parts of the capital, and broad, spotless boulevards traveled between blue-glassed shopping centers and gleaming high-rises. The small Tibetan area remaining, with its swarm of dusty lanes and little houses, was now called “Old Town,” as if it were already a historic area commemorating the curiousities of an indigenous population long gone. The signs along Beijing Lu, as the main drag is called, were for Giordano and gelato.
In order for me to love a travelogue, the author needs to both conjure up scenes so well that I feel right there with them and to intelligently put her/his experiences in context. As far as the latter goes…it’s not that the author needs to have the same opinions as me on international affairs (although, when that’s the case, it’s quite a bonus!), but s/he needs to have an internally consistent, thought-out approach that does not involve references to Thomas Friedman or Samuel Huntington (unless they’re disparaging…I’ll get on board with that). Iyer provides all of that and more, which is why I’m so interested in his backlist. I can’t wait to be able to see more of the world through his eyes! Now I just have to decide where to head to first. ;)