[REVIEW] “Noir Fables of Tibet: Tsering Dรถndrupโ€™s ๐‘‡โ„Ž๐‘’ ๐ป๐‘Ž๐‘›๐‘‘๐‘ ๐‘œ๐‘š๐‘’ ๐‘€๐‘œ๐‘›๐‘˜ ๐‘Ž๐‘›๐‘‘ ๐‘‚๐‘กโ„Ž๐‘’๐‘Ÿ ๐‘†๐‘ก๐‘œ๐‘Ÿ๐‘–๐‘’๐‘ ” by Michael Tsang

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

Tsering Dรถndrupโ€™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 โ€œlocal informantโ€ 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 systemโ€”livestock is the currency that is often exchanged in an environment which still largely respects wildlife. But Dรถndrupโ€™s stories are no blind apologia for Tibetan people as he writes about corrupted lamas and hypocritical officials.

One remarkable storyโ€”the centrepiece of the volumeโ€”is โ€œRalo.โ€ One of the longest in the volume, this is a tale of survival, an allegory of lifeโ€™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 traitsโ€”treacherous, opportunistic, unhygienic, boastful, selfish. Even the word โ€œarroganceโ€ 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 storyโ€™s (meta-)narrative structure, since Raloโ€™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 โ€œRaloโ€ thus stands in contrast with Raloโ€™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. โ€œMahjongโ€ is a short but powerful piece that can precisely be read as a fable in which โ€œChineseโ€ cultureโ€”in this case allegorised as a mah-jong setโ€”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 โ€œresolutionโ€ in the storyโ€™s plot structure. The following story, โ€œThe Story of the Moonโ€, 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 extinctionโ€”now living on the moonโ€”go to the other extreme and want to hear nothing but fairy tales. In a matter of two and a half pages, Dรถndrup cautions against both ignorance and overabundance. The story โ€œThe Last Man to Care for His Parentsโ€ speaks about a Tibetan nomad caring for his parents, but the tragicomedy lies in what ensues: the media magnifies the manโ€™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, โ€œNotes of a Volunteer AIDS Workerโ€, 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 โ€œNoteโ€ comes at the end when the endnotes to this โ€œNoteโ€ reveal another first-person narratorโ€”the doctor (i.e. volunteer worker) of said patient, who comments on the patientโ€™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 patientโ€™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 (โ€œTibet is full of AIDS victimsโ€, we are told) as an aftermath of Tibetโ€™s modernisation and urbanisation under Chinaโ€™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: โ€œIโ€™m terrified of dying, but Iโ€™m even more terrified of livingโ€. It was poignant then to end the storyโ€”and because this is the last story, the entire collectionโ€”with the line โ€œI donโ€™t even have the energy to speakโ€. Suddenly, after an entire volume of noir humour, we are jolted back to the chilling reality of Tibetโ€”who still has the energy to speak? What is there to speak about Tibet? 

How to cite: Tsang, Michael. โ€œNoir Fables of Tibet: Tsering Dรถndrupโ€™s The Handsome Monk and Other Stories.โ€ Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 23 Jul. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/07/23/handsome-monk/ 


Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and is Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, with previous academic experiences in Newcastle University, the University of Warwick, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His interests lie in East Asian literatures and popular cultures, as well as postcolonial and world literatures at large. He is the co-editor of Murakami Haruki and Our Years of Pilgrimage (Routledge, 2021). He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. In April 2012, Michael joined Chaโ€™s editorial team as Staff Reviewer. He is a founding co-editor of the academic journal, Hong Kong Studies (Chinese University Press). [Cha Profile]

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