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Sunday, Feb. 16, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Climb every mountain, saving souls on the way


BONE MOUNTAIN, by Eliot Pattison. New York: St. Martin's Minotaur, 2002, 306 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

Novelist Eliot Pattison really knows how to spin a story. He also wants you to sympathize with the plight of Tibetans, which is not difficult to do. "Bone Mountain," Pattison's third novel set in Tibet, is categorized as a mystery, but it's also very much a vehicle to espouse a cause, with little attempt at subtlety.

Due in large part to its sheer remoteness as well as to the powerful hold of Buddhism on its populace, Tibet has long held a fascination for Western adventurers. After its annexation by China in 1951, the country became a natural venue for novels of intrigue, such as works by a prolific but nearly forgotten British author, Simon Harvester (nom de plume of Henry St. John Clair Rumbold-Gibbs, 1910-1975). More recently, thriller fiction set in Tibet appears to have tapered off, perhaps in inverse proportion to its accessibility. After all, with a few mouse clicks on a travel agent's Web site, you can fly to Lhasa, tour the Potala, haggle for souvenir prayer beads and spend the night at a comfortable hotel.

Pattison eschew the Holiday Inn, taking the reader along precipitous yak trails that transit remote valleys and windswept plateaus. His authentic settings, realistic character portrayals and lyrical prose helped win him the Mystery Writers of America "Edgar" Award for Best First Novel with "The Skull Mantra" (1999), which was followed by "Water Touching Stone" (2001).

The protagonist in all three of Pattison's novels is Shan Yun Tao, a former Chinese cop who had the misfortune of displeasing his superiors in Beijing and was sentenced to perform laogai -- "reform-through-labor" -- in the Tibetan gulag. His arm bears the tattooed serial number, marking him for life as having run afoul of the government.

For four years, Shan slaved alongside Tibetans who were being punished mainly for nonviolent acts of defiance. On provisional release from the labor camp, and, moved by their native wisdom and the depth of their spirituality, he wanders the stark countryside in the company of his friend Lokesh, an old lama he met prison, while applying his rusty but still serviceable investigator's skills to link several seemingly unrelated mysteries: the enigmatic killing of a Tibetan monk by a dobdob, a member of the religious police; the theft of the eye of an idol from a Chinese army unit that had been keeping it as a war trophy, and for which the soldiers are prepared to wreak havoc to recover; and the disappearance of a female American geologist, the member of an oil-exploration team.

Shan and friends set out to fulfill a prophecy by returning the stolen eye to its original village. En route, they encounter Shane Winslow, a sympathetic American diplomat who speaks Tibetan and Chinese and who, I suspect, is the author's alter ego. Although giddy from the high elevation, Winslow joins the entourage, serving as the foreign "eyes," to witness depredations by the Chinese and their Tibetan collaborators

These boogeymen who make life so difficult for the Tibetans assume many forms: the army; the security apparatus (the "knobs"); and agents from the Religious Affairs Bureau (the "howlers"), whose task is to chip away at the Tibetans' fervid faith by imprisoning those who cling to the old ways. Medical teams, it is hinted, may be less interested in improving health than using science to reduce the indigenous population. The Beijing government is also eager to exploit Tibet's largely untouched natural resources -- oil, minerals and lumber.

"The huge machine that Beijing had unleased decades earlier," writes Pattison, "was out of control. Or . . . just embedded so deeply in the world . . . that it was impossible to stop."

As Shan and his companions make their way toward the neighboring province of Qinghai, they are intercepted by a company of Chinese troops seeking to recover the relic. The army's swooping down on a mountain village evokes a sense of terror familiar to anyone who's watched old World War II films in which the Gestapo pursue members of the resistance. Pattison's rendition emulates the scene, right down to the description of its cold-blooded leader Colonel Lin, whose "thin lips folded into something like a snarl," and who, while nervously tapping his boot, chain smokes cigarettes down to the butt as his men check identity papers and round up suspects.

"I keep my world simple," the colonel mutters. "There are those who belong to the new order, and those who are trying to. Everyone else . . . has no place, and is owed nothing."

Lin, who assumes the role of a tenacious Inspector Javert to Shan's Jean Valjean, is rescued from near death by the very people he had so eagerly tyrannized, and by the end demonstrates that even he is not immune to compassion. Ultimately, tracking down the killers in this "mystery" is accorded considerably less importance than sympathizing with an oppressed people -- and salvaging lost souls.

Mark Schreiber is a devotee of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia.


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