by Eliot Pattison
The Skull Mantra follows the investigations of Shan, a Chinese prisoner in a Tibetan labor camp, exiled for his mis-steps in the political minefield of Beijing. When a headless corpse is discovered on the road leading out of town, Shen is recruited by the local military leader, Colonel Tan, to run a parallel investigation alongside the official Ministry of Justice inquiry. The ensuing adventure digs down to the core of the Chinese presence in Tibet, to the essence of contemporary Communism and corruption, and to the vile treatment the Chinese government brings to bear on those who resist its rule. A few thoughts:
- We read this book for my mystery book club and while the mystery is solid and interesting, this is really a book about Tibet and its struggle under Chinese rule. At the same time, Pattison does an excellent job including only information necessary for the telling of the story–or rather, building a story that necessitates telling a lot about how Tibetans live today. The resolution of the mystery is pretty complex, but Pattison does a great job pulling all the threads together into a narrative that explains the mystery nicely.
- The mystery is fraught with tension as our investigator must play his cards from a powerless position within a matrix of influences, political dangers, and secrecy. The complex system of respect and language results in multifaceted conversations in which people say one thing, mean another, and accidentally reveal a third.
- Comrade Shan is an intriguing character, a man with strong integrity who has come to embrace Buddhism late in life but still clings to secular ideas of justice and ethics. He makes a good intermediary through which Western eyes like mine can view the events.
- Boy, Americans sure come off looking dopey in this book. Throughout the novel, the impending visit of American tourists looms over everyone’s actions, completely aware that to make the government look bad when the tourists show up would be the worst crime someone could commit. Sure enough, they turn up at a critical time and the scene is darn funny for it.
- My favorite scene is Shan’s visit to the rogyapa village, a place where Tibetans bring their corpses for sky burial (the ritual of cutting up the bodies to offer to vultures). The people from the villages are both revered and shunned, objects of both admiration and fear. There’s a funny moment where one of the soldiers is wrestling with some of the rogyapa children and they pull out toy cleavers and pretend to cut off his limbs to prepare him for sky burial. Yikes.
The Skull Mantra is a lovely book, full of moving images and thoughtful language. It has a complex mystery that takes real teasing out. It reads a little slow in the beginning, but overall it’s quite good.