Books on contemporary Tibet tend either to extol the virtues of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama; or are traveler’s tales salted with exotic, other-worldly happenings; or they have a political agenda. Tibet is a fascinating topic from any angle, and it is sure to garner attention among any random set of readers.
In Cairns, by Dan’l Taylor, it is refreshing to find a captivating story of Tibet without magical spells or angry politics. But the author doesn’t ignore the problems that Tibetans have faced since the 1950s, nor does he alienate those who stand firmly on one or another point of view. The novel describes the simple life of villagers profoundly familiar with yaks and sheep, poor farm soils and wildly beautiful mountain valleys, trade and smuggling across snowbound Himalayan passes, and (tangentially) with leprosy.
Cairns is a novel about the difficult life and troublesome times of a Tibetan couple, Nima and Tsering, whose adventures encapsulate a wide range of contemporary Tibetan experience. Readers with strong feelings about the politics of contemporary Tibet may take issue with Taylor, implying that he neglects harsh political realities, but that misses the point. Cairns is not a book about exploitation, displacement and suffering. Rather, it is about resilience, perseverance, and the eagerness to breach difficulties and prosper under new circumstances.
We are introduced to the couple as furtive lovers; then as husband, wife and parents trying to work out several confounding mysteries. One is the whereabouts of their only child, who is sent off as a teenager to a Chinese school, then drops out of sight. They call him, generically, “Our Son”, as if he stands for all such youth who adapt to the new order of Tibet in modern China. Another mystery focuses on a vast treasure that has fallen into the disfigured hands of the lepers. Nima and Tsering are puzzled by the nature of the disease and by the plight of a close relative who lives among the lepers.
We follow the lives of the Tibetans as they cope with harsh physical and social environments. We see them as trans-Himalayan traders, then as street-side peddlers catering to the whims of Westerners in Kathmandu (whose names readers may recognize as long-time resident expats). We also glimpse life in a refugee camp, then follow the now worldly couple back to Tibet where they become key figures and role models for a Western organization engaged in creating the Qomolangma (Mount Everest) National Nature Preserve on Tibet’s southern border.
The basic theme of the book is that of confronting reality and pushing on. “For ten years I saw myself as a refugee,” Tsering says. “I was poor. When I took what seemed worthless in one place and started selling that what I was really doing was pushing the boundaries that trapped me. It is not trade but boundaries. The people who get ahead are those who step across boundaries in a way no one had thought of before.” Tsering and Nima often speak philosophically about the up and down directions of their lives together. “Sometimes,” he continues, “a shaft of light catches us lighting our life, more often we live under a cloud. Nima and I somehow fell through a hole, walked out of the mountains, and our lives opened to a whole world. It all seems so matter of fact when we live it, yet magical when looked at from a distance.”
Cairnsis a tale of historical and cultural prescience, richly descriptive of Tibetan life during difficult times. Taylor’s understanding and descriptions of village life in Tibet and Kathmandu ring true, and in the Epilogue there are strong hints that the compelling plot is based on a true story.
On the book’s webpage, Cairns is presented as one of three volumes (the first and last not yet published). Also worth noting is the participatory nature of its publication. Cairns is presented as a “before final publication” novel-in-the-making. At forwordspress.com/books/cairns, readers are invited to partner with the author to create a better, more ‘well-rounded’ product, thus giving Cairns a unique interactive identity.
Published in 2009 by For Words Press; 408 pp. ISBN 0982583109; available on the Internet (Amazon.com) for $17.75. Contact For Words Press (Franklin, WV, USA): firstname.lastname@example.org. This review is adapted with permission from a longer version by the same reviewer published in Rain Taxi Review Of Books Online Edition, Summer 2010, at www.raintaxi.com.