'Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years' by Jamyang Norbu

Carole Tonkinson

SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE MISSING YEARS Sherlock Holmes
The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and Tibet
by Jamyang Norbu
Bloomsbury: New York, 2001
287 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)

“Of late, I have been tempted to look into the problems furnished by nature rather than the more superficial ones for which our artificial state of being is responsible. Of these the ultimate problem is the meaning of our existence.” The musings of a Tibetan sage? No, these are the reflections of Sherlock Holmes - or at least the latest incarnation of the world’s greatest detective offered in Jamyang Norbu’s gripping, witty novel (which on its earlier publication in Great Britain and India bore the more suggestive, albeit less commercially promising title The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes). Buddhist Holmesians may already have discovered the legendary sleuth’s affinity with the dharma, but for the rest of us the revelation of Holmes as a deerstalkered bodhisattva will come as a pleasant surprise.

Norbu deftly transports Holmes from the fogbound streets of Victorian London to the thronging, colorful byways of the Raj and beyond, to the lofty mountain seats of Tibetan lamas. In fact, reincarnation is - in a very loose sense - already part of the Holmesian mythos. In 1891, tired of his creation, Conan Doyle sent Holmes tumbling to his death at the Reichenbach Falls, locked in mortal combat with his nemesis, the notorious Professor Moriarty. When under pressure of popular demand Conan Doyle revived his hero years later in “The Empty House,” Holmes informed a reeling Dr. Watson that while presumed dead he had spent two years traveling in Tibet, where “I amused myself visiting Lhassa [sic], and spending some days visiting the head Lama.” Holmes’ Tibetan sojourn (like every other unaccounted-for episode in his long and illustrious career) has already attracted apocryphal invention, inspiring both Hapi’s The Adamantine Sherlock Holmes, which also explores the metaphysical possibilities offered by the Tibetan setting, and the distinctly un-Buddhist Sherlock Holmes in Tibet by Richard Wincor.

In Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years, Norbu, a journalist and lecturer on Tibetan culture, skillfully weaves together a rich mix of themes and subjects: the historical reality of Tibet and some principles of Tibetan Buddhism with a fictional narrative involving Holmes and a new foil, Bengali spy Hurree Chunder Mookerjee (a character lifted from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim). Norbu, who while in boarding school in India grew up on the stories of Conan Doyle and Kipling, has adroitly married his two inspirations in a meticulously crafted recreation of the Victorian imperialist adventure story that ultimately transcends its origins as (in Norbu’s own words) “a small pastiche” to become a skillful work of literature in its own right, thereby pursuing a more serious agenda: bringing home to readers the plight of Tibet and its current devastation by the Chinese.

The story begins when, fleeing from Moriarty’s minions, Holmes arrives incognito in India. Escaping near brushes with death, including a flesh-creepingly sinister episode involving a Benares brass lamp and a deadly leech, Holmes presses on to the still-forbidden kingdom of Tibet with Hurree in tow. There they negotiate more perilous battles and encounter extraordinary sights: a parrot on a peach tree chanting the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, secret teachings on Kalachakra Mandalas, and an ice temple in Shambhala, where Holmes becomes involved in a dramatic attempt to save the life of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and preserve him from Chinese aggressors.

But Holmes is not just another imperialist tourist. From the outset, he is on a deeper quest. It is his search for answers to mysteries that even his famed ratiocinative powers cannot penetrate that draws him to Tibet, as he surmises the presence of “the last living link that connects us with the civilizations of our distant past, and where is preserved the knowledge of the hidden forces of the human soul.” As his journey unfolds, the affinity of his own deductive methods with Buddhist beliefs becomes manifest: “All life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.” By the climax of the novel, Hurree and the reader have come face to face with what Norbu, in one of the mock-scholarly asides that entertainingly punctuate the novel, identifies as “the clear spiritual bent in Holmes’ character” that neither Dr. Watson nor subsequent generations of Holmesian scholars have noticed. As Hurree reflects: “He was celibate, of noble mien and great wisdom. In accordance with the Mahayanic precepts of altruism and compassion he had devoted his life to aiding the weak, the poor and the helpless against the powers of evil. He fasted regularly to clear the vital channels and bring about clarity of insight; and he had powers of concentration that would make many a practicing yogi look like a rank novice.”

The intertwined narratives of spiritual quest and political intrigue culminate in a stunning twist, but it is in the epilogue that Norbu’s political agenda draws fully into focus. He begins by laying some blame on the “blinkered clergy and the weak aristocracy” for not heeding the warnings and embracing the reforms of the great Thirteenth Dalai Lama, which led to the Chinese invasion. He then launches into a detailed account - down to the numbers of monuments and monasteries destroyed in Tibet - of the situation at present, before returning to his fictive frame.

Like Norbu’s own ripping yarn that ultimately reveals something richer, stranger, and deeper, the appendix “Carl Jung on the Relationship of Mandalas and UFOs” (which is slightly adrift now that “mandala” has been excised from the title) poses an unexpected challenge. In a note preceding Jung’s text, Norbu clearly states that this story is not another Shangri-La-ification of Tibet for the “cultists and crackpots drawn to Tibetan and Indian esoterica.” Instead, he uses Jung’s words to ask us what we will make of this, his fictional mandala: “It depends on us whether we help coming events to birth by understanding them, and reinforce their healing effect, or whether we repress them with our prejudices, narrow-mindedness and ignorance, thus turning their effect into its opposite.” ▼

Carole Tonkinson is a contributing editor to Tricycle.

Image: Sherlock Holmes discovers Tibet in Jamyang Norbu's new novel

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