Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mystery in Tibet: Eliot Pattison, Prayer of the Dragon, Fifth Shan Mystery

Through THE SKULL MANTRA, WATER TOUCHING STONE, BONE MOUNTAIN, and BEAUTIFUL GHOSTS, Philadelphia-area author Eliot Pattison has taken Shan (Shan Tao Yun) through layers of agony and wisdom, in the struggle to preserve the remains of Tibet's monks, monasteries, and holy knowledge. Sometimes it seems Shan is very much alone in his quest: A Chinese national himself, but one who has fallen from the exalted political ranks of Beijing special investigator, into the dreaded gulag of the Chinese prison system, Shan's attachment to the monks in his life has come as a counterforce to his own fears and repeated nightmares. Once he had great power; now he seeks comfort, or at least some release, at the feet of the most powerless. For Tibet is under Chinese occupation, and the monks -- who can draw followers simply by their humility and prayers -- are enemies of the all-potent state.

Pattison's earlier Shan books have taken the fallen investigator through both success and failure as a student of the wise. Shan's failures are nearly always rooted in the skilled investigation that he has mastered to the point of having it be an automatic part of how he sees the world around him. In this fifth book, PRAYER OF THE DRAGON, Shan repeatedly walks circles around scenes of murder and loss, ironically imitating the movement around a mandala or holy sand painting. He is consumed with his effort to protect his beloved monastic friends Lokesh and Gendun. Yet the two holy men are shamed by Shan's attachment to healing the world, to solving murders, to tracking down killers.

PRAYER OF THE DRAGON lands Shan in double spiritual trouble. Not only are Lokesh and Gendun urging him to let go of the latest scene of corruption that he has noticed so clearly -- those long-honed instincts and skills of both investigator and gulag survivor always at the front of his interactions -- but also his path tangles with that of two Navajo seekers on a holy Tibetan mountain. Lightning strokes, thunder, and entryways to heaven and hell appear as Shan struggles upward.

In an author's note at the end of the volume, Pattison admits that his decision to pair the Tibetan and Navajo/Dine spiritual traditions -- to the point of asserting that today's American Navajos may share common genetic stock with the early Tibetans -- can be seen as a aromatic fancy. In a short defense of the notion, he outlines overlaps in the two forms of sacred wisdom, and adds wryly that because Tibetans are often exiled from their land, some are now settling among the Navajos in the American desert.

Whether the sciences of anthropology and genetics ultimately support this connection is not crucial to the book, however. What matters most is whether Pattison's weaving of the tale carries sufficient veracity and authority. What indeed will we believe as Tibetan monks meet a singer of the Navajo Blessingway? And how much will this collision of worlds distract us from the vital quest taking place in Shan's life?

For me, the answer was, with a tip of the hand back and forth, "perhaps it's a bit distracting." I find it hard to envision Tibetans borrowing pollen and sweat rituals from a visiting Navajo, no matter how much terror their village has endured. Likewise, I am not sure that a Navajo without an undue amount of political savvy could enter Chinese-occupied Tibet and make sense of his experience.

But Pattison crafts far more than a who-walks-where, and more than a contrast-and-compare of rituals and wisdom. It's Shan's personal struggles with trust, with loyalty, and with the awkward blessings and pain of friendship that are the strong, resilient skeleton of PRAYER OF THE DRAGON. His investigations make sense (although they are a bit heavily loaded with explanations in this volume), his skills match the tasks in front of him; most of all, his griefs and angers resonate across the worlds of culture. Once again, Pattison offers a compelling novel; accept a willing suspension of disbelief about the Navajo/Tibetan premise, and the forces that move Shan forward will likewise propel a reader through the pages and dangers, to a classic Pattison resolution.

[European cover version]

1 comment:

Beth Kanell said...

A note to Pattison collectors: Kingdom Books hopes to have some signed copies of most of the Shan books, including PRAYER OF THE DRAGON, available December 16, if all goes well.