‘I understand it’s a fine place. they’re very comfortable there. They have good food, doctors, everything. It’s actually a monastery for women. What they call it, is Yamdring.’
Occasionally in reading through the CWA top 100 crime novels, I have come across books which are neither crime nor mystery but something else entirely. Cold War satire The Manchurian Candidate for one, The Name of the Rose for another. Lionel Davidson’s The Rose of Tibet is another.
As with the other Lionel Davidson novels I have reviewed (The Night of Wenceslas and The Sun Chemist), we have an unlikely hero. This one is an indolent art teacher, Houston, stuck in a rut in post-war London whilst his brother builds an exciting career in the film industry.
This changes when Houston’s brother’s crew goes missing in India, turns up in Tibet, and is finally reported dead by the Tibetan authorities. Their last known location was a remote monastery called Yamdring. Details are scanty and the authorities are not forthcoming, which means the life assurance company is not forthcoming. Evidence of death would mean financial security for the crew’s families and so Houston (who is secretly convinced his brother is still alive, and also wants to avoid choosing which girlfriend to go to for Christmas) agrees to go to India and hunt for evidence.
More than a year later he returns, fabulously wealthy and missing an arm. The Rose of Tibet explains what happens in between.
After a few weeks in India, Houston becomes convinced that the authorities will tell him nothing and that he needs to cross over into Tibet himself. He recruits a local guide named Ringling and sets off – with little conception of how difficult the journey will be. Davidson could definitely write a gruelling journey. Exhaustion, altitude sickness, dodgy maps and the elements are against Houston and Ringling as soon as they leave India. The wind is a particular foe:
It hit him like the sea, a terrific icy buffet that knocked him instantly off his feet. He was not sure if he was on his back or his front, the blackness in the first moments so intense, the ocean of pressure so solid all around that he seemed to be in another element. He couldn’t breathe and the freezing current, rushing past his muffled ears, was like the sound of trombones.
Their reward is their arrival at Yamdring, a grubby and extremely smelly Shangri-La, but at least somewhere they can stop walking. In Yamdring, Houston – or ‘Houtson’ to a Tibetan – quickly becomes embroiled in the confusing, inexplicable and often contradictory traditions of the monastery town.
‘The she-devil can’t die. She just comes and goes.’
‘And she’s just gone again now, is she?’
‘No, sir, no, Houtson,’ the boy said keenly. ‘She’s here.’
‘In the monastery?’
‘In the monastery. In the top one. She’s the abbess – the abbess *and* the she-devil. She goes away and comes back. She’s in her eighteenth body now.’
‘I see,’ Houston said cautiously. ‘How about the monkey – does he come back?’
‘Oh, Houtson, no,’ the boy said, swiftly covering a smile with a charming gesture of his slender hand. ‘The monkey can’t come back. Not the real monkey. What a surprise for the abbess if the monkey came back for her.
Being unfamiliar with Tibetan tradition, I have no idea whether what we are presented with is realistic (I suspect not, because Davidson covers himself by saying Yamdring has been allowed to develop its own ways). There’s a lot of sex for a monastery, which seems like wishful thinking to me. Anyway, Houston has no idea what is going on, and has to trust his guide Ringling to find the film crew – which ends up in trouble for both of them.
Furthermore, Houston’s arrival in Tibet is badly timed. The prophecies for the year have been very bad, meaning the authorities and the general populace are extremely hostile to foreigners – but nowhere near as hostile as the Chinese, who choose that moment to invade. Houston’s escape from the Chinese invasion through the Tibetan winter is every bit as compelling as his journey in, and ends in sickness, hallucination, and some almost incidental killing.
So – some travelogue, a bit of exoticism, a dash of eroticism, and lots of survival. To return to the question of what kind of book this is: The Rose of Tibet is bracketed by the story of ‘Lionel Davidson’s’ attempt to publish it, which is fraught with difficulties.
‘You don’t think there will be a book?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘And meanwhile you have contracted with nine publishers including – I hesitate to mention it – ourselves, to produce one within a year.’
‘And should therefore tell them the situation and return the advances.’
‘Which your co-trustee won’t agree to do.’
‘That’s the situation.’
‘All right,’ T.L. said. ‘I’ve got it now.’
A complex contractual situation, concerns about libel, and the story’s lack of corroboration mean that the text we are reading is dubious. We are not supposed to know if Houston’s tale is real or not, and indeed we are advised to disbelieve certain details.
‘Once you’ve finished changing this and disguising that, you’re left with something that’s neither a true story nor a proper novel. What is it?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said uneasily.
Nor do I, but I do know The Rose of Tibet is a great read. And I still haven’t read Kolymsky Heights, which is supposed to be Davidson’s best.
The Rose of Tibet
First published Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1962
This edition Faber & Faber, 2016
384 pages in print
Source: Kindle edition
Final destination: A keeper