Thursday, July 18, 2013

Seven Years in Tibet

Seven Years in Tibet
By Heinrich Harrer

While reading Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer's sublime work of travel literature, I was struck by a disturbing question. Has the epitaph for travel literature already been written?

For centuries, armchair travelers have marveled at the tales of adventurers who have traveled to distant lands. From the works of Marco Polo and Ibn al-Battuta to the invaluable works of Charles Darwin to the amazing stories of Thor Hyerdahl, travel writers have taken readers to places they could only imagine, told stories of exotic people and extraordinary cultures.

But with the relatively recent advent of cheap flights, social media, the Internet and, most devastatingly, globalization, is the era of travel... real exploratory travel... finished? Well, until the advent of interplanetary travel, I think it just might be.

Let introduce the book and then let me explain.

In Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer takes us inside one of the most insular cultures ever to exist on this planet. Not only was the Tibet that Harrer visited suspicious of outsiders, it had the luxury of being nestled on the other side of the almost impassable Himalayan mountain chain. When Harrer entered the country in the middle of the Second World War as an escaped POW he became one of only a handful of Europeans who had ever gained access to Tibet. Over his seven years in the country (just in case the title wasn't clear on that) he would meet less than a dozen other Europeans (conversely, I met over a dozen western expats on my first night in taiwan in 2002). There is literally no place on earth left that hasn't felt the impact of Western culture (aka globalization). In that sense, Harrer was given the rare opportunity to see one of the last nations on the planet completely untouched by the Western world prior to the Great Flattening.

The book itself is divided into four parts. The first part deals mainly with Harrer's time in a prison camp in India. As a German on British soil during the early days of World War II he was taken into custody. But he planned and executed his escape and crossed the border into Tibet with the intent of reaching the Japanese lines. The second part of the novel recounts the two years he spent trying to get a foothold in the notoriously insular nation. This part was most interesting to me because it was, by far the most harrowing portion of the book and recounted incidents that could only occur in the duty nowheres of Asia. The third part consists of his first years in Lhasa and the final part is essentially an early biography of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, their friendship and his ultimate flight from Tibet when the Chinese invaded in 1951.

This is travel writing in its purest form. Harrer has no Western crutch, no expat community that has paved the way for his arrival and provided for a nice cushy landing. This is the story of a man who made his way in a nation where he may have been the first of his kind (i.e. German) to ever live in Lhasa. Harrer saw a Tibet that few travelers had seen before and none will ever see again. He saw the pure, unadulterated culture prior to the onslaught of the Chinese invasion and the inevitable incursion of the modern world. And since 99% of the religious buildings in Tibet have been destroyed since the invasion and over 70% of the current population of Lhasa is non-Tibetan, Harrer's work is essentially a eulogy for an entire culture.

Now, I haven't been to Lhasa but I have done my fair bit of travel and, while I still love to do it, I have no misgivings about it. I'm never going to have a unique experience in any of the exotic locales I choose to visit (unless, of course i choose to visit a war zone, which of course I won't). No matter where I go, no matter how far off the beaten path I venture, I am treading on roads well worn by millions of people who have come before me. Every medium sized town in Vietnam and Sri Lanka has a Starbucks. There are fast food outlets in Rangoon and Nairobi. You can buy Bulgari watches at the airport in Ankara and Calcutta and I'm sure if you can't buy a McDonalds Happy Meal in the shadow of the Potala Palace, it's not long in coming.

This incursion has made the notion of travel problematic. If you can experience gourmet Indian cuisine in the comfort of your own home, view the cultural splendors of India from on the television and purchase authentic Indian handicrafts via the Internet why, exactly, would you pay vast quantities of money to fly half way around the globe only to find that Mumbai is a morass of the same 18 fast food chains, coffee shops and clothing outlets you just left? And unless you traveled for a very specific reason (i.e. mountain climbing, surfing, archaeological dig) there is never really much difference between Paris, Pretoria and Phnom Penh. Did you travel for the smell? Because that might be the only thing you couldn't have gotten back home.

With all due respect to Michael Palin, Bill Bryson and Neil Peart, who have written some fabulous travel literature in the past 20 years (focusing on travel with very distinct purposes, I might add), we will never again have a book that represents an introduction to a major nation, city or culture that The Travels of Marco Polo or Seven Years in Tibet was. At the time of publication, Tibet was perhaps the last great unexplored culture on the planet. It's a shame that Harrer's work coincided with its demise (and make no mistake, no amount of Beastie Boys concerts will ever resurrect the Tibetan Nation). The Epilogue to the edition I wrote is a thousand times more heart breaking than the book since Harrer' has had a half century to reflect on the events of his book and see it for what we all know it is, an epitaph.

In that respect, this book is also a cautionary tale for Taiwan, the country I live in (Ten Years in Taiwan?). Taiwan has been the focus of a relentless propaganda campaign since 1949 and while the situation with Tibet doesn't provide exact parallels, there are lessons to be taken for any Taiwanese who cares to listen. The recent self-immolations that have plagued the Tibetan capital represent a desperate endgame that has no happy ending. Is this Taiwan's future should China get the opportunity to act? Let's how for Taiwan (and my) sake we never find out.

Anyway, long story short, Seven Years in Tibet is deserving of the moniker classic travel literature and should be placed on the bookshelf with the other heavyweights in the genre. Perhaps (and lamentably so) at the far right.

(Note: I never saw the Brad Pitt movie)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
By Maria Semple

Note: Please read this blog entry in Ron Howard's voice. Thanks.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? opens with a report card. But it's not just any report card. It's Balakrishna (Bee) Elgin's report card from The Galer Street School, a snobby private school where the parents pick their children up in Subaru's (but not, lamentably for the administrators of the school, in Mercedes). Bee is a special student who has achieved straight Ss throughout her academic career.  Galer School is one of those educational institutions that does't like the stigma of traditional "grades" and thereby gives their students Ss (Surpasses Exellence), As (Achieves Excellence) and Ws (Working toward Excellence), presumably to assure parents that their precious little snowflakes are all some incarnation of excellent.

Bee, however is not your typical special little snowflake. She is the daughter of Elgin Branch, workaholic Microsoft employee with a rabid geek cult-following ever since a now legendary TED Talk (fourth most watched TED Talk, ever!) about a technology that allows people to control a robot simply by thinking about it. Elgin enjoys reticulated bicycles and irrigating his sinuses among other pastimes. Bee's mother is Bernadette Fox, a legend in architecture the way Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger are legends in literature. Within the world of architecture, Fox is both a genius and a ghost. A former recipient of a McArthur Grant and the designer of the now mythologized Twenty-Mile House (mythologized because it was torn down immediately after it was completed). Fox has not designed a house in two decades and has become an angry, agoraphobic recluse to the point that she has outsourced her life to a personal assistant in India for seventy-five cents an hour.

Together, the Branch family live in the ruins Straight House, a former Catholic school for wayward girls which has now been overrun with blackberry bushes and rot. Despite being an architectural and design genius, Bernadette has not so much as lifted a drafting pencil since moving in and renovations have yet to commence. Much like The Branch family's collective sanity, the house is literally crumbling in on top of them. So, the house is, quite obviously, a metaphor about unrequited homosexual desire and to sum up, Bee is pedigree of genius. And with genius comes madness. Beautiful, anti-social madness.

In an attempt to stave off a pony, Bee's parent's had promised to get her anything she ways upon graduation from Galer School (on the condition she achieve straight Ss, of course). Bee calls them on their promise and demands a trip to Antarctica (it is here that I should note that upon my graduation from middle school I was given a pat on the back and told to keep out of trouble in high school).  From that point on, the novel shifts into overdrive and truly awful but seriously hilarious things start happening in rapid-fire succession. There's a landslide, an intervention gone horribly wrong, physical altercations, an arrest, someone scratches their eyeball and, of course, all sorts of Three's Company/Frasier style misunderstandings. The situation is so grave that it requires a trip to the ends of the Earth to rectify the situation (the aforementioned trip to Antarctica, of course). Naturally, Antarctica is a metaphor for cultural erosion.

If the Where'd You Go, Bernadette? sounds like good television, it's no wonder. Maria Semple is a former television writer who worked on (among other things) Arrested Development, which is why I: a) hated every single character and b) loved every single character because I hated them so much (this is exactly why I think Arrested Development is the best television comedy of its generation (sorry 30 Rock). How can you not hate and love to hate Lucille Bluth?). Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is a tightly-constructed narrative populated by delusional Tiger Moms, snobby private school parents, neurotic tech geeks, scatterbrained artists and the now ubiquitous overly-ambitious Asian woman who will do anything to succeed. The characters you are meant to hate are atrocious human beings (that you will recognize from your own life) who get their comeuppance in stunning fashion. But the protagonists are no better. Semple has not written then in such a way that a reader will immediately empathize with them. Nope. Not in the least.. The Branches (Branch's?) themselves are the worst sort of Bobos, a term coined by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise. But who's thinking about sociology while personal assistants based in India are procuring anti-psychotics for you and research scientists are ordering pink penguins at the bar.

As in any good ensemble comedy (whether it is Arrested Development, The Simpsons or Where'd You Go, Bernadette?), the absurdity only works when there is a straight man to counterbalance the insanity. Arrested Development has Michael Bluth, The Simpsons has Lisa and Where's You Go, Bernadette? has Bee. These characters, while often seen as bland, are the lynch pins to the comedic payoff. They are the link between the off-kilter characters and the readers/viewers. In this particular instance, Bee is both the most and least interesting character in the novel, depending on how you read it. It's not terribly difficult to lose sight of her what with all the drug abuse, Russian mafia and dental appointments but make no mistake, this novel is essentially about Bee, not Bernadette.

Written in several formats including e-mail correspondence, psychiatric evaluations, FBI documents, report cards and even a receipt or two, the entire novel comes across as a case file that is weaved intricately and imaginatively without repeating information (a common occurrence in multiple format style novels (see: Dracula)). Semple is one hell of a good comedic writer and now that I know she worked on my favorite television show, I'm sorry that she didn't write more of the novel in dialogue form (there is a transcript of the intervention but it's a tantalizing snippet of what Semple might be capable of doing. I cannot wait to get my hands on more of her work.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is the very definition of a summer read but with the added bonus of having literary cred. It's a wild ride and absolutely impossible to put down. I picked it up with more than a little trepidation that it was going to be one of those definitive women's novels (no offense intended, I'm using this term for lack of a better. But there are so very many novels written and marketed to women specifically and I try to steer clear). If you are looking for something light to read on the beach this summer or if you are looking for something a little more literary than the usual check-out fare or if you are simply looking for a book that mentions Antarctica because it's too damned hot and you want to forget about it, you will find something to take away from Where'd You Go, Bernadette. It's impossible to put down.

Kenny Bania inadvertently summed up Where'd You Go, Bernadette? years ago when he succinctly noted: "That's comedy GOLD, Jerry!"

Monday, July 1, 2013

The White Tiger

The White Tiger
By Aravind Adiga

Happy Canada Day!

And like any red-blooded Canadian citizen, I like to enjoy our nation's birthday by sitting down and writing a blog post about modern Indian literature. This year I have the pleasure of cracking a Moosehead, turning up Blue Rodeo on the stereo and getting down to business with Aravind Adiga's "blazingly savage" debut (and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize) novel The White Tiger. I put those words, "blazingly savage," in quotations because they are not my words but rather those of Neel Mukherjee, reviewer for the Sunday Telegraph. I'm not familiar with Mr. (Mrs.?) Mukherjee's work for the Telegraph but a simple racial profile (i.e. reading his (her?) name off the byline) indicates that he (she?) probably knows significant amount more than me about India, Indian culture and Indian literature.

That's not to say that I'm writing about this novel in a vacuum. Long-term readers of this blog know that I am an avid fan of Indian literature and read as much of it as I can get my hands on. And I don't know it you have noticed or not but I have been reading quite a few recent Man Booker Prize winners and nominees, recently. It hasn't been a conscious thing, but I have been made aware of my recent trend and it's true (I picked up a recent nominee this morning, so expect more in the near future). So, I'm not entirely devoid of opinion on this novel and I'd like to think that my opinion has some weight on this stiflingly hot Canada Day in Asia.

I bring up Mukherjee's words because I cannot think of a more succinct way in which to express my feelings toward this novel. Set in modern day India, Adiga's novel is told from the perspective of Balram who is introduced as an entrepreneur at the onset of the novel. Narrator via a series of letters from Balram to the premier of China, it is revealed that Balram a small-town indian who has work his way out of The Darkness as a driver for Ashok, a local landowner based in Delhi. As driver, Balram is singly endeared, repressed, ignored and abused by his employer, resulting in a complex relationship that culminates in Balram murdering his boss (note: this is not a spoiler as it is mentioned in the first 20 pages of the book). The result is a "blazingly savage" (see I can't help myself) treatise on the injustice of India's caste, the human quest for freedom and the nature of individualism in a collective culture.

On the surface, The White Tiger is a simple (yet effective) examination of the stifling caste system in India and the way in which it maintains and perpetuates itself. Through Balram we are introduced to the knee-jerk servitude of the lower castes and the way in which lower castes are disregarded entirely. In all the novels I have read about India I have never encountered such a naked appraisal of the injustice of the caste system than in The White Tiger. But nowhere in this novel is the injustice more manifest than Adiga's blistering rant on the nature of Indian democracy and the manner in which the ruling castes manipulate elections to their advantage. Scathing stuff.

But for all the ways in which the caste system hinders social mobility in India, there resides within each individual a burning desire for freedom in some form. In this case, it is Balram's desire for freedom from his master's inconsistent and increasingly erratic relationship. Throughout the novel, despite Balram's questionable behavior, the reader finds it difficult to fault Balram in his often wayward quest to find his way out of the intricate web of relationships and obligations that was woven for him since birth.

Which brings us to the theme of individualism. At a young age, Balram is given the moniker of "The White Tiger" by a local luminary touring the schools in the area. In Indian lore, a white tiger is someone who comes around only once in a generation and is different from everyone around them. Despite the fact that his life trajectory seems to follow the median for his particular caste, Balram maintains the notion that he is somehow different from everyone in his village. Is this a partial motive for his later crime? Perhaps, but more telling of his idea that he is different from everyone around him is that the entire novel is a series of letters from Balram to Wen Jiaobao, Premier of China and the leader of the world's most collective culture. What significance is there in Balram, the stalwart white tiger of individualism, in writing to the very antithesis of individualism? Vanity, perhaps. The same confession written to the office of the President of the United States of America would be received with an anticlimactic shrug. Perhaps Balram has an inherent sense of irony.

It should also be noted that aside from these fun themes, there is an underlying current of globalization gone horribly wrong. In a recent blog post I noted that naive protagonists are often better than those in the know simply because it is more entertaining from a reader's perspective to read  a story told from the perspective of someone who knows precious little about the world around them. Despite his recent success, Balram is the poster child for the half-educated child of globalization. In a sense, technology has permeated our culture (and one would presume Indian culture as well) enough to misinform a significant portion of the population about everything from poetry to physics. We see it in America among the adherents of intelligent design and we see it throughout The White Tiger.

This is the novel that Slumdog Millionaire desperately tried to be and failed. That's not a knock on Slumdog Millionaire so much as it's a heap of respect for Adiga's ability to actualize modern India in a way that is both endearing and horrifying at the same time. This novel is unrelentingly ferocious in its depiction of India and its caste system. The White Tiger deserves all of its accolades. If I had somehow read this novel a few Canada Days ago, before Neel Mukherjee, I would have said that The White Tiger is "blazingly savage."

Read it.