[REVIEW] “Noir Fables of Tibet: Tsering Döndrup’s The Handsome Monk and Other Stories” by Michael Tsang

{Written by Michael Tsang, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Tsering Döndrup (author), Christopher Peacock (translator), The Handsome Monk and Other Stories, Columbia University Press, 2019. 216 pgs.

Tsering Döndrup’s The Handsome Monk and Other Stories shows that literatures from less visible regions in the global literary marketplace (Tibet in this case) do more than simply being a “local informant” about the social realities of a place, but can do so through stylistically sophisticated prose. Many stories in this collection, despite their varying lengths, offer deadpan humour in their portrayal of morally flawed characters; these are noir fables about Tibet.

The Tibet in this volume is still very much depicted as under a non-capitalist system—livestock is the currency that is often exchanged in an environment which still largely respects wildlife. But Döndrup’s stories are no blind apologia for Tibetan people as he writes about corrupted lamas and hypocritical officials.

One remarkable story—the centrepiece of the volume—is “Ralo.” One of the longest in the volume, this is a tale of survival, an allegory of life’s challenges, of how the eponymous protagonist Ralo survives the tragedies and the ups and downs of life, from being jailed and losing his family to betrayal by his friends and loved ones. However, Ralo gets little sympathy from the reader as he is an anti-hero with less than appealing personality traits—treacherous, opportunistic, unhygienic, boastful, selfish. Even the word “arrogance” sounds too heroic for him. Despite all these flaws, readers cannot really bring themselves to hate him either for, even if his shortcomings are not exactly redeemable, we know that they are simply the product of the sad reality of human life. Also notable is the story’s (meta-)narrative structure, since Ralo’s life is told not by Ralo himself in the first person, but via an acquaintance of his, suggesting that the portrayal is filtered through the first-hand observation of this acquaintance. Readers may find themselves wanting a bigger role of the acquaintance instead of a small, trivial role that is neither completely effaced nor entirely pivotal. This, however, is a key feature of the volume in general: the acquaintance introduces a critical distance from the main character Ralo, and this sense of distance underpins many other stories in the volume and is what gives the impression of noir humour.

The dry, objective-sounding narrative voice of “Ralo” thus stands in contrast with Ralo’s overexaggerated words and actions. In this way the story collection often extracts the most extraordinary happenings among ordinary Tibetan people and communities, and then packages these happenings in a satirical style. One can say that dark humour affords the volume a chance to deliver a sharp critique of China and Tibetan society without being overtly political.

Indeed, many other stories in the collection are satires that read like fables. “Mahjong” is a short but powerful piece that can precisely be read as a fable in which “Chinese” culture—in this case allegorised as a mah-jong set—pollutes and poisons Tibetan society and ends up exacerbating impoverishment. Here, it reads like a fable because its short length of three pages is primarily concerned only with describing the impact of mah-jong in Tibet without any real solution to the problem, hence no real “resolution” in the story’s plot structure. The following story, “The Story of the Moon”, is a hilariously dark take on a staple sci-fi narrative: not only do humans wipe themselves out in the usual trope (that humans could no longer control the overly advanced technology they created), but a new generation of children after human extinction—now living on the moon—go to the other extreme and want to hear nothing but fairy tales. In a matter of two and a half pages, Döndrup cautions against both ignorance and overabundance. The story “The Last Man to Care for His Parents” speaks about a Tibetan nomad caring for his parents, but the tragicomedy lies in what ensues: the media magnifies the man’s story when they get wind of it, as if they have just uncovered some weird creature on the planet; the state, too, capitalises on the language barrier between Chinese and Tibetan, and appropriated the story for propagandistic aggrandisement.

The last story of the collection, “Notes of a Volunteer AIDS Worker”, confuses the reader initially as we read the first-person confession of an AIDS patient, rather than worker. The brilliance of using the epistolary form of a “Note” comes at the end when the endnotes to this “Note” reveal another first-person narrator—the doctor (i.e. volunteer worker) of said patient, who comments on the patient’s code-mixing language practice between Chinese and Tibetan. But the story itself describes the negative impact of the disease in detail, including the initial HIV flu. The casualness of catching AIDS through prostitution without the patient’s knowledge overwhelms his perspective as he reflects on the uselessness of money and the shame of ending the family line at the hands of disease. Allegorically, one may be able to read the AIDS situation in Tibet (“Tibet is full of AIDS victims”, we are told) as an aftermath of Tibet’s modernisation and urbanisation under China’s control, reading this story as another political fable. However, the dehumanising effect of the virus on the individual is acute: the patient makes it clear that what hurts the most is the state of being neither a man nor a demon: “I’m terrified of dying, but I’m even more terrified of living”. It was poignant then to end the story—and because this is the last story, the entire collection—with the line “I don’t even have the energy to speak”. Suddenly, after an entire volume of noir humour, we are jolted back to the chilling reality of Tibet—who still has the energy to speak? What is there to speak about Tibet? 

How to cite: Tsang, Michael. “Noir Fables of Tibet: Tsering Döndrup’s The Handsome Monk and Other Stories.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 23 Jul. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/07/23/handsome-monk/ 

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Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and is Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University, working on a project on world literature and East Asian publishing industry. He holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, researching on Hong Kong English writing. His broader research interests are on world and postcolonial literatures with an Asian focus. He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. In April 2012, Michael joined Cha’s editorial team as Staff Reviewer. He is an editor of the academic journal, Hong Kong Studies (Chinese University Press). Visit his Newcastle profile for more.  [Cha Profile]

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