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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Handsome Monk

Tsering Döndrup

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To purchase The Handsome Monk

Title: The Handsome Monk
Author: Tsering Döndrup
Genre: Stories
Written: (Eng. 2019)
Length: 201 pages
Original in: Tibetan
Availability: The Handsome Monk - US
The Handsome Monk - UK
The Handsome Monk - Canada
  • and Other Stories
  • Translated by Christopher Peacock and (one story) Lauran Hartley
  • With an Introduction by Christopher Peacock

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Our Assessment:

B : nice variety; interesting glimpses of Tibetan life and culture

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Wall St. Journal . 18/1/2019 Sam Sacks

The complete review's Review:

       There is fairly little Tibetan fiction available in English, and so this collection of stories by Tsering Döndrup is very welcome. Translator Christopher Peacock's helpful Introduction gives some insight into both contemporary Tibetan fiction -- a part of the (much) larger Chinese literary scene, if not quite as peripheral as it might seem from outside China -- and the author, himself ethnically Mongolian (from Malho, where the population occupies: " something of an in-between space: ethnically Mongolian, culturally and linguistically Tibetan").
       The fifteen stories in The Handsome Monk range from the very short -- several are just three pages long -- to the novella-length 'Ralo' that takes up more than a quarter of the book. Though there is considerable variety, there are some elements common to many of the stories, including the frequently used (fictional) locale of Tsezhung and a focus on the nomadic lifestyle; very little here takes place in urban settings. The character of Alak Drong, a leading local religious figure, appears in quite a few of the stories, usually in a secondary role; a representative of the more corrupt or at least dubious practices of official Tibetan Buddhism. And several stories also involve the (Tibetan) afterlife and feature the Lord of Death (whose offices, in one of the stories: "were located in a newly built Western high-rise").
       Many of the stories take place in a culture that is nomadic and communal. Tents are pitched and then moved, animals tended -- though, in some cases, rented out for others to take care of --, and there is a general sense of community and mutual obligation. Politics does stray into some of the stories, but the government's role and reach is limited; among the few concerns of the locals about clashing with the state is the Party's official atheistic line as the locals continue to follow Buddhist traditions; so also a rare encounter with what seems to be state officialdom -- "two burly men from the Public Security Bureau" -- turns out to be an encounter with a different form of officialdom, as they are figures from the after/other-world, aides of the Lord of Death. Yet despite the widespread levels of spiritual devotion, the local temple, and official representative Alak Drong, seem more concerned with maintaining status and a certain level of wealth, and are less involved with the day-to-day life that's described, swooping in mostly when it's time to take their cut. If not entirely corrupt, they certainly also don't live up to the expected religious ideals.
       The lengthy 'Ralo' gives a good overview of present-day rural Tibetan life, the title-figure good-natured but without much ambition, somehow making his way through life with a variety of ups and downs. It is formally also interesting, the author suddenly emerging halfway through, recounting that: "I wrote the story of Ralo in 1988, and it was published in Light Rain magazine in 1991", and then describing how in 1992 he found himself in jail where he met Ralo again, and continuing Ralo's story from there. The ups and downs of Ralo's life continue, including with a horrific decapitation incident (which, however, typically for Tsering Döndrup's presentation, is simply recounted and hardly dwelt on -- though the consequences are presented as having profound effects). Vivid -- the descriptions of Ralo's lice are almost too close for comfort -- and interestingly varied, including the author's and Ralo's experiences in jail, and then in various settings beyond it, it's a fairly fully realized life-story novella.
       'Black Fox Valley' offers an interesting picture of the clash of traditional and outside powers, describing life in the ominously named "Happy Ecological Resettlement Village". Typically, the: "county Party committee and the county government" promise to help the locals fix their soon uninhabitable homes -- but:

Sadly, their method of repairing the houses was precisely the same as the one they had used the year before. The nomads called this method "spreading mud on shit."
       Dung-sellers become rarer and rarer, replaced instead by sellers of "expensive black rock" -- coal, that is unaffordable for many of the locals. It also turns out to be dangerous: ill-equipped to use it, carbon monoxide deaths become common. This foreign fuel further upends local life with the final revelation, of what Black Fox Valley actually is -- making for a nice warning tale of environmental degradation and modernization, and its effects on local populations.
       Other stories address the environment as well, such as the one science-fiction-like story, 'The Story of the Moon', set in a distant future where an old man tells a story to a group of children and begins by mentioning the moon -- an object the children are unfamiliar with, because it was destroyed long age. Short, this little fable-like tale is one of those that strays farther away from the contemporary and local.
       Another timeless sort of tale is One Mani, an amusing story of two friends who die at about the same time, one of whom had spent a lifetime reciting his manis (the spiritual "Om mani padme hum") -- ninety-nine million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine-hundred and ninety nine of them -- while the other just blurted out one, just before dying. The one who has said so many is distraught: "Don't they say that if you recite one hundred million manis you're sure to go to the Blissful Realm ?" -- and he came up just the one short. His friend is willing to give him his lone mani, and they go explain the situation to the Lord of Death -- who of course has a different perspective on the whole thing.
       Some of the stories and episodes are a bit abrupt, and occasionally rough around some of their edges, but generally Tsering Döndrup shows a quite deft hand in his presentation, and there's a nice variety here, in style, approach, and kinds of tales.
       The Handsome Monk does give a good sense of especially rural contemporary Tibetan life, and some fascinating glimpses of still fundamental aspects of it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 March 2019

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The Handsome Monk: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tibetan-writing author Tsering Döndrup was born in 1961.

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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