Magazine article The Spectator

Victims of a System

Magazine article The Spectator

Victims of a System

Article excerpt

TIBET, TIBET by Patrick French HarperCollins, L20, pp. 333, ISBN 0002571099

'The mind's Tibet': innumerable books have been written about that partly imaginary land, remote among lofty mountains, ruled by a priest-king, where all was custom and ritual and everybody believed in the interconnection of this world and the next. Patrick French first fell under that spell when the exiled Dalai Lama visited his public school. He has produced something very different from most of what he calls 'Tibetophile' literature, something greatly superior in its honesty and lack of false sentiment.

With the Chinese communist invasion in 1950, the old Tibet which had endured almost unchanged for centuries was destroyed in a few years. It is not the only unique and beautiful culture in the world which has fallen to the ravages of progress and demented ideology. But because of its splendour, antiquity and sheer strangeness it seems the primary victim.

Its fate abruptly changed the outside world's perception of this hitherto mysterious land. The suffering of Tibet became an international concern and then a fashionable cult, irresistibly attractive to the bogus and the fake-spiritual, which reached its apogee of base absurdity among the film stars and stunt-mongers of the United States. More seriously, the Free Tibet movement became a worldwide organisation in which Patrick French worked, helping to set up uncounted demonstrations, marches, boycotts.

'I took some time,' he writes, 'to realise that none of this seemed to have the slightest effect on the Chinese government. It was a wish to get back to Tibet' - he had visited it as a tourist 20 years before - 'to see it unmediated by the versions and hopes of others, that set me on the road to Lhasa in 1999.' This outstanding book is the result. Travelling through Tibet alone, he writes unsparingly of what he found there, interspersing it with sidelights on Tibetan history and mythology. Best of all, he describes encounters and conversations with Tibetans still living as best they can in their ruined land.

With sorrow and anger at all that has been lost, he loves and admires them for their endurance, humour, cheerfulness in adversity and above all an acceptance of fate that comes from their religion - qualities they have certainly needed to survive in a harsh country, and, far worse, amid the terrible disasters the ingenious cruelty of an alien and inhuman system has visited on them.

There were several stages in the ruin of Tibet, that true 'crime against humanity'. …

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