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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Secret Tale of Tesur House

W. Tailing

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To purchase The Secret Tale of Tesur House

Title: The Secret Tale of Tesur House
Author: W. Tailing
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 348 pages
Original in: Tibetan
Availability: The Secret Tale of Tesur House - US
The Secret Tale of Tesur House - UK
The Secret Tale of Tesur House - Canada
Das Geheimnis des Hauses Tesur - Deutschland
  • A Tibetan novel
  • A chronicle of old Tibet
  • Tibetan title: བཀྲ་ཟུར་ཚང་གི་གསང་བའི་གཏམ་རྒྱུད།
  • Re-written in English by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : rough and uneven, but enjoyable

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Secret Tale of Tesur House is a two-part novel, narrated by Drugye. It opens with a chapter in which he briefly describes his boyhood in the suburbs of Gyantse -- at that time: "considered the third largest town in Tibet, next to Lhasa and Shigatse, with a population of scarcely ten thousand". He grows up in one of the poorest houses in the village, his family renting a small property on the estate of the House of Terab. He is known as the 'Donkey Stable Devil', and while helping out the family also manages to get into some trouble with his friend, the 'Southern Devil'. Their escapades also bring them to the attention of the Elder Master -- the elder son of Lord Terab, who is around their age and befriends them.
       The story then jumps ahead nine years, to 1935. Lord Terab has risen in the government hierarchy and expanded his holdings considerably, while the Elder Master has completed his schooling and now holds a junior official post. Drugye, meanwhile, has been working the fields, like always, his situation barely changed. Now, however, an opportunity presents itself: a senior muleteer has retired, and his position needs to be filled; the manager of the estate has tapped Drugye for the job.
       Drugye is almost immediately sent off with nine mules, and expected to reach Lhasa seven days later; he is instructed never to reveal that he is from the House of Terab along the way. He soon reaches the postal relay station and caravanserai of Zara, where he plans to spend the night -- but it's eerily quiet there; upon investigation, Drugye finds he has stumbled ono the scene of a massacre. He finds only one injured survivor, a man: "easy to recognise as he had a modern hairstyle, popularly known as the 'Bengali hairstyle'". Drugye heads on with the injured man, looking to get help.
       The next inhabited place he reaches is another postal station, Srinlag. He comes to an inn, where he finds a filthy little girl and her mother, the innkeeper. He explains he wants to head on to the district office of Nankartse Dzong to report the incident but she tries to dissuade him; he tries enlist a local to help him -- only to find the innkeeper trying to smother the injured man and then come after him with a dagger.
       When the dust settles, Drugye finds himself under arrest: the eyewitness young girl's wails of "He's killed my Ama" are pretty damning, and when he points them to Zara and the heap of bodies there he of course also seems the obvious candidate for who was responsible for that. Everyone heads -- or is taken, in the case of Drugye and the injured man -- to Nankartse Dzong, where Drugye is locked up for the time being -- though not before receiving his "arrival whipping", the standard treatment for anyone sent to jail, even if just on suspicion of a crime.
       The case quickly comes to a hearing, and it is the wounded man who can clear up what happened, explaining how it came to the scene in Zara that Drugye stumbled upon -- it was a set-up and ambush -- and making clear why the innkeeper in Srinlag tried to silence him and kill Drugye (she was in on it). But straightforward as the case seems to be, there's a problem: Nankartse Dzong is run by the House of Samphel -- "another great noble, and a sworn enemy of the House of Terab" --, and while Lord Terab is called in to investigate, by the time he arrives all the evidence has been done away with and it (briefly) does not look good for Drugye and the injured man.
       Finally cleared of any wrongdoing, Drugye finally gets to Lhasa; he's been reunited with the Elder Master and the rekindled friendship between the two is stronger than ever. Elder Master has some issues of his own: his parents arranged a marriage for him -- or rather, were all set to foist one on him -- but he was already deeply in love; briefly back in the fold in Lhasa, he nevertheless can't stay; he renounces his rights to the House and, with Drugye in tow, sets off to find his beloved.
       The happy reunion of Elder Master and and his great love, Tsogyal, concludes the first part of the novel, 'A Traveller's Nightmare'. The second, 'Pema', continues with the same characters, the happy couple and Drugye setting up shop in Lhasa. Drugye travels some transporting goods, and comes by Srinlag -- and stumbles across the little girl he had encountered on his first ill-fated visit there. Orphaned, she is reduced to begging, and Drugye takes pity on her; on his way back to Lhasa, he takes her along, and she becomes part of the extended family. She turns out to be smart and helpful; when she is sent to school she is a good student -- only for the local school then to ask for her to be withdrawn, the other children's families having learned of her wrong-caste background and not wanting their children to be polluted by the likes of her. The solution is to send her off to a school in India -- "Loreto Convent in Darjeeling, one of India's most prestigious girl's schools" -- and she thrives there.
       Pema -- as she is then called -- also befriends the daughter of an English businessman, and soon enough Elder Master and Drugye are in business with him, supplying him with wool and enjoying great success. And young Pema reveals to Drugye that she is in love with him, and they eventually become a couple.
       Lord Tesur, meanwhile, has done quite well for a while, but is thwarted from career advancement by none other than rival Lord Samphel for the position of minister in the Kashag; when that happens he: "became so terribly upset that he died of anger" -- and Lord Samphel quickly uses his new position to confiscate the government estates annexed by Lord Terab. Meanwhile. Tesur House -- the Elder Master's new establishment, after he abandoned the House of Terab -- thrives. But just as it looks like everything will come to a happy end, with Pema and Drugye married, cruel tragedy strikes in the form of flash from the past. Things do not end well -- though the fatalistic attitude of the characters make the tragedies slightly more bearable.
       The story is a bit rough and simple, but engagingly told. Episodes -- and lives -- are repeatedly cut off rather abruptly, but enough carries over to make for decent sense of continuity. Along the way, Tailing does provide interesting glimpses of Tibetan life (and commerce) around the 1930s, from Drugye's very humble beginnings to social structures and various elaborate celebrations, including weddings, to jail scenes. The variety is impressive -- he packs a lot in, while almost never bogging down in any particular part (except perhaps some of the Tesur House commercial dealings).
       Some of what one might imagine are the more striking experiences are somewhat glossed over: arriving in Gangtok, Drugye notes that it is:

Here visiting Tibetans would catch their first sight of motor-cars, appearing like match boxes in motion, as seen from the mountain side far above as we travelled down.
       But Drugye doesn't really convey any of his own sense of wonder at many of the new things he sees (like cars) -- or does, as when they fly in a plane. Similarly, he is illiterate into adulthood -- causing a bit of a problem when Pema writes him a letter -- but the acquisition of this and most other expertise and experience barely rates much of a mention, much less discussion.
       The one historically and socially interesting episode has Tesur House eager not just to export wool and import finished goods for sale in Tibet, but to encourage the manufacturing of goods in Tibet itself. Pema does learn quite a bit at school, and:
     Pema explained that the industrialization of a land meant a stop to the outflow of its raw material and the consumption of its own manufactured goods.
       Cash-rich, Tesur House is eager to invest in domestic development and they petition the Kashag for permission to set up factories, build a hydroelectric power plant, and a road "for the trade route between Tibet and India" -- noting that they'd be willing to finance it all (i.e.it wouldn't cost the government anything). The response is devastating, the Regent not at all on board:
His excellency judges that: as long as the Yellow Hat tradition shoulder its duty of protecting the mortal world, your demand of introducing such things as factories, power plants and automobiles, signifies nothing other than the start of the degenerate age and therefore not merely is it out of question, the idea itself should not even be contemplated.
       This too is just a brief episode -- Tesur house has no choice but to bow to the Kashag's ruling -- but yet another interesting glimpse of Tibetan life in the times. As with much else, one might wish for these issues and conditions to be explored in greater detail, but there's something to be said for the quick, sweeping approach here as well. Things certainly move along quickly, with few lulls in the story, and it remains engaging throughout.
       A few events are very casually and quickly handled -- in particular the transformation of Pema, who is apparently able to leave her trauma behind her without much of a second thought (never mind the psychological issues surrounding her falling in love with the man who is responsible for mom's death ...). So too, much of the writing is fairly rough -- though it's more of a matter of it being unpolished (especially by US/UK editorial standards), rather than poor writing: Tailing is a capable storyteller, and it says something for his work that, stylistic issues aside, the novel is quite consistently gripping.
       One might wish this were larger-scale epic, but even as is The Secret Tale of Tesur House is a fine (and colorful) novel of this time and place.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 February 2020

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The Secret Tale of Tesur House: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tibetan author Wangdor Tailing (བྲག་གདོང་བཀྲས་གླིང་དབང་རྡོར་) was born in 1934.

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