Sunday, May 24, 2009

Inspector Shan Embraces Tibet's Highest Peak in Eliot Pattison's New THE LORD OF DEATH

It had to happen eventually: Although Shan Tao Yun, mostly referred to as Shan or Inspector Shan, is Han Chinese, his loyalty in Eliot Pattison's award-winning sequence is with the Buddhist Tibetans surviving under Chinese occupation of their land and holy places. Starting with THE SKULL MANTRA (winner of an Edgar award) and continuing through WATER TOUCHING STONE, BONE MOUNTAIN, BEAUTIFUL GHOSTS, and PRAYER OF THE DRAGON, Pattison evokes the beauty and integrity of the tradition of lamas and holy men (and occasional women) of this often harsh land. Shan, in turn exiled as a criminal by the occupying force and then taken into sanctuary by his friends among the Tibetans, has deepened steadily in both his religious practices and his complex relationships. Like a concentration camp survivor, he bears a tattoo of his prisoner number. But if he can convince people to give him a chance, he soon proves his "criminal" past is in fact the best proof of his distance from the Chinese.

So in this sixth investigation, Shan at last arrives at Mount Chomolungma, the mother goddess mountain that Westerners know as Mount Everest. Selected as a corpse carrier by the local astrologer, Ama Apte, he doesn't understand why she has chosen him to retrieve the local dead from the mountain where so many Western bodies also linger. To the Chinese who watch him, he's descended into an untouchable caste by doing this. To the Tibetans, he is courting spiritual danger. And underneath all his actions is a compulsion he can't turn from: the desperate desire to rescue his son, who has been imprisoned and is in overwhelming danger at the hands of the Chinese.

Why has Ama Apte chosen Shan for the tasks of death that keep following him? Is it simply that, as she tells him, she saw something in his eyes - "You are one of those the dead speak through. The threads of your life become entwined with the dead you touch." And what is forcing the Western mountain climbers to attack the local holy places, and to lose lives in this, as well as in the climb?

Through Shan's eyes, the climbers carry death with them:
Entering the base camp below the North Col of Everest was like entering a war zone. Stacks of materiel for doing battle with the mountain lay under tarps fastened with rocks and ropes, each labeled with a trekking company name. Clusters of tents were scattered across the rocky landscape -- some elaborate, brightly colored nylon structures, others, from less well endowed expeditions, affairs of tattered canvas. Porters -- the ammunition carriers of the annual spring war -- scurried about under heavy loads, weaving in and out of small groups of climbers. The foreigners could instantly be identified as new recruits or veterans. The haggard veterans, back from the oxygen-starved, frigid upper slopes, looked as if they had come from weeks of artillery barrage. ... Two weeks earlier, Shan had seen a man writhing in agony on a stretcher, half his face dead from frostbite.

In this war zone, Shan is at risk of being not just someone's soldier but even someone's explosive ammunition, aimed against his friends and his son. His fragments of relief are small, precious, and almost entirely interior, and are necessary to the problem solving that his roles as investigator and ally require:
He sat long ..., watching the fire dwindle to ashes, driving the world from his mind the way Gendun and Lokesh had taught him. Finally he went to the lip of the high ledge and folded his hands into the diamond of the mind mudra for focus, looking over the sleeping town and the snowcapped sentinels on the horizon. After an hour he found a quiet place within. After another hour he began to let each piece of evidence enter the place, turning it, twisting it, prodding it, looking for and finally finding the one little ember that was smoldering under it all.

Pattison's language is elegant and vivid, and the relationships that he probes among the land's past and present residents, human and of spirit, are integral to Shan's investigations. Only a sound comprehension of the way his adopted compatriots think and worship can bring Shan to valid answers. Courage and stamina must root themselves in the skills of listening and paying attention -- the root skills of all investigators and all seekers for wisdom.

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