The Handsome Monk, by Tsering Döndrup

translated by Christopher Peacock

Columbia University Press, 2019

Publisher’s blurb

Tsering Döndrup is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed authors writing in Tibetan today. In a distinct voice rich in black humor and irony, he describes the lives of Tibetans in contemporary China with wit, empathy, and a passionate sense of justice. The Handsome Monk and Other Stories brings together short stories from across Tsering Döndrup’s career to create a panorama of Tibetan society.

With a love for the sparse yet vivid language of traditional Tibetan life, Tsering Döndrup tells tales of hypocritical lamas, crooked officials, violent conflicts, and loyal yaks. His nomad characters find themselves in scenarios that are at once strange and familiar, satirical yet poignant. The stories are set in the fictional county of Tsezhung, where Tsering Döndrup’s characters live their lives against the striking backdrop of Tibet’s natural landscape and go about their daily business to the ever-present rhythms of Tibetan religious life. Tsering Döndrup confronts pressing issues: the corruption of religious institutions; the indignities and injustices of Chinese rule; poverty and social ills such as gambling and alcoholism; and the hardships of a minority group struggling to maintain its identity in the face of overwhelming odds. Ranging in style from playful updates of traditional storytelling techniques to narrative experimentation, Tsering Döndrup’s tales pay tribute to the resilience of Tibetan culture.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Kevin McGeary, 5/3/19

In China, authors from minority ethnic groups are often forced to write in Chinese to get noticed. That means using a second language, in some cases one from a different family of languages, to tell the story of their own people.

In the introduction to The Handsome Monk, a short story collection by Tsering Döndrup, translator Christopher Peacock points out: “Tibetan authors publish through journals and publishers organized under Chinese state practices, and likewise, online literature is largely circulated on websites and platforms hosted in China.” This puts Tibetans in danger of having a shortage of authentic literary voices.

Fortunately, Döndrup, who is originally Mongolian but widely recognised as one of the most important writers in Tibetan of recent decades, has provided a vital and entertaining collection, mostly set in the fictional county of Tsezhung, a rural nomad locale along the real-life Tsechu River in his home region of Malho, Qinghai. Translated brilliantly from the Tibetan by Peacock, the stories humanize the nomadic Tibetan people while satirizing their society as one plagued by gambling, prostitution and religious hypocrisy.

The author is something of a specialist in conjuring up vivid scenes using bodily fluids. “Piss and Pride” is a rather suspenseful story, centring on a retiree who must test his bladder control to the maximum to uphold the dignity of his people. In “Notes of a Volunteer AIDS Worker”, the narrator graphically details how he contracted the disease and what it is doing to his body.

In “Ralo”, the titular character is known for the prodigious amount of snot that he produces. Initially published in the early nineties, this story was later extended to novella length. It is not one of the tighter pieces but contains some very astute satire about how Western tourists see Tibet as “the last unspoilt holy land on Earth”.

The collection is at its strongest when characters are grappling with the moral implications of their own behaviour. Many of these involve the Tibetan people being dominated by the Han and succumbing to the kind of anguished compromises required to survive.

One of the most extraordinary of the stories is “A Show to Delight the Masses”, which carries on the Tibetan tradition of mixing prose and poetry in summing up the life of corrupt official Lozang Gyatso. Much of the narrative unfolds in a sort of celestial rap battle to decide whether the main character is a good person. Since his sins have included urinating in a monk’s mouth, the answer is somewhat self-evident, but the story is no less gripping for it.

Standout lines include: “If you send this man to hell, you’ll have to send the rest/ The eighteen realms will overflow, and that will be a mess”. Unfortunately, Robert Frost’s quote that “poetry is what gets lost in translation” applies, and rhyme and meter often have to be sacrificed for accuracy. It is nonetheless a radical and interesting idea, brilliantly carried through.

In the title story, the eponymous handsome monk Gendün Gyatso encounters Llatso. He gradually goes from seeing indulging the pleasures of the flesh as unthinkable, to acceptable, to an addiction.

Of the shorter pieces, highlights include “Revenge”, which hints at the intractability of the society’s problems. “A Story of the Moon” is an other-worldly fable that expresses Döndrup’s scepticism of technological progress.
The penultimate piece “Black Fox Valley” also satirizes the idea of social progress with the very real issue of Han encroachment on Tibetan culture. A family of nomads are relocated from the idyllic valley to the ominously named Happy Ecological Resettlement Village.

The nomads observe what a hypocritical invention the modern toilet is, and that dung is becoming rarer and being replaced by a much deadlier fuel, coal. After experiencing a family tragedy that echoes something from China’s recent past, the nomads attempt to return to the valley, but may be in for another shock.

Since the unrest of 2008 and the periodic self-immolations of the following years, Tibet has been the subject of a crackdown. Döndrup, with the help of translator Peacock (and Lauran Hartley for the story “A Show to Delight the Masses”) brings a massively readable collection with a real and respectful portrayal of this fascinating land.

Reviewed by Kevin McGeary