The Skull Mantra
St. Martin’s Minotaur: New York, 1999
352 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
Despite the popularity of nonfiction books about Buddhism, fiction dealing with the dharma or its practitioners remains rare. Rarer still is popular (as compared to literary) fiction touching upon Buddhism. The Skull Mantra, by first novelist Eliot Pattison, an expert on international policy, is just such a rarity: a full-tilt thriller that exhibits a profound feel for Buddhism and how it manifests in a particular corner of the world: occupied Tibet, in the present day.
Pattison casts his plot as a murder investigation. A headless body is discovered by a Chinese-run prison labor crew (mostly Tibetan) in Tibet’s remote Lhadrung County. Because the local prosecutor is away, and because the case must be closed quickly in order to satisfy Beijing, the county’s Chinese governor, one Colonel Tan, turns for help to an unlikely source: a Chinese member of the prison crew, Shan Tao Yun, once a top Public Security Investigator in China but now in exile and behind bars for having embarrassed a top Party official years back. Aiding Shan in his investigation are his Chinese government liason, Feng, and a Tibetan, Teshe, a former Buddhist monk now working for the prison administration system.
The case takes Shan to areas of Tibet both expected (Lhasa) and unexpected (the forbidding high mountainous region of Kham). The author’s descriptions of these sites are potent (upon first seeing the Potala, Shan sinks to his knees: “Its huge lower walls, brilliant white and sloping steeply upward, gave the main structure the appearance of a vast, golden-roofed temple floating above Himalayan snows... Never before in his life had Shan been afraid to look at something. He felt unworthy to stare at the building”). As such, the book offers a crisp, immediate travelogue of the Land of Snows, as well as of Tibetan Buddhism, with its mix of sophisticated meditative practice and adaptations of folk belief.
More importantly, Shan’s investigations bring him into contact with a range of Tibetans, Chinese, and Americans (a group of Yanks pursuing a mining project play a key role in the plot). It is in these characterizations that the book truly shines. Pattison conjures men and women on all points of the moral spectrum, from the saintly Choje Rinpoche, once abbott of a Tibetan monastery, now spiritual leader of the prison labor crew, to the icy-hearted Chinese major who, like so many of his countrymen, despises Tibetans and their beliefs. These extreme figures are sharply drawn, but the richest characters are those who embody the customary human mix of good and evil—Shan himself, for example, and Col. Tan, and, in particular, Teshe, who despite vigorous indoctrination by the Chinese ultimately can’t resist the call of the Dharma. While these people blend good and evil in satisfyingly complex ways, however, Pattison leaves no doubt as to what exactly he considers good (Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism) and what evil (the Chinese Communist system and its adherents who have invaded Tibet). His novel, with its depictions of monks in chains, blasted monasteries, and Chinese-sponsored devastation of the Himalayan environment, is a fierce polemic in story guise, serving up a searing indictment of the Chinese rape of Tibet.
The storyline itself is amazingly, distractingly convoluted; At times, it seems as if it would be easier to visualize a Tibetan mandala than to hold its every twist and turn in perspective. Even so, suspense runs high throughout, as Pattison employs variants of traditional storytelling stratagems—will the real killer be found before a Buddhist hermit falsely accused of the crime is convicted and executed? Will Shan, Col. Tan, and Teshe submit to self-interest or fight for truth despite the consequences?—to maximum effect. Like its obvious inspiration, Gorky Park, Pattison’s novel uses the lens of thriller fiction to illuminate brilliantly the state of a (to Americans) little-known culture. That the culture is Tibetan Buddhist, under dire attack from Chinese influence, makes The Skull Mantra not only an exhilarating read, but an important one, politically and morally.
Jeff Zaleski, a contributing editor to Tricycle, is an editor at large at Publishers Weekly.