Book Review: “The Handsome Monk and Other Stories,” Tsering Dondrup

This review is thanks to J, who mailed me a copy of this book.

The Handsome Monk and Other Stories is a collection by Tibetan author Tsering Döndrup who is, according to the introduction, “ethnically Mongolian, culturally and linguistically Tibetan.” He stands as a writer writing in a time where writing “that reflects the experiences of modern Tibetans must now reflect a life colored and conditioned by the experience of existing in contemporary China.” Whether he is seen as Tibetan or Mongolian, he is “above all concerned with the hardships faced by ordinary Tibetans in a world that is both rapidly changing and yet somehow immutable.”

Some of the topics he discusses through fiction include “the corruption of both religion and officialdom, the degradation of traditional nomad life and its attendant social issues, the linguistic invasion of the Chinese language, and the threat to Tibet’s environment from industrial modernity.” I quote a lot from the translator Christopher Peacock here, as his introduction was excellently researched and written.

Those who know me know how devoted I am to the Tibetan cause (of which there are, in fact, many “causes” and entrances into), but what you may not know is that I gave away a majority of my books on Tibet before I left to teach English in Korea. I do not know how many books I donated to the DC-based organization Machik, but there were at least four printer-paper boxes full, of autobiographies and biographies, short story collections and fiction. I kept a handful of important books, but let most of it go, hoping that it would be useful to someone else.

I asked for a review copy of The Handsome Monk because I loved Old Demons, New Deities: Twenty-One Short Stories from Tibet. The short story format is close to my heart, and I believe that in such bite-sized pieces of fiction, truth prevails.

“The Disturbance in D-Camp” reads like an old wise tale from Tibet, and is an excellent beginning to the collection. “Ralo” is a must-read for anyone who wants to read Tibetan writing. “A Show to Delight the Masses” features long, poetic verses that are surely that much better in the original Tibetan. In these and other stories, monks find themselves living with prostitutes, people lose everything playing mahjong, and traditionally nomadic people find themselves forcibly removed from their lands and put up in shabby make-shift shelters while their lands are ravaged for “expensive black rock.” (The latter being my favorite story from the collection, entitled “Black Fox Valley”.)

These things–prostitutes, gambling, alcoholism, environmental destruction, and AIDS–are not things that jump to the forefront when discussing Tibet, but as Tsering Döndrup shows us, they are all too familiar in today’s Tibet.

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