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The Skull Mantra    by Eliot Pattison order for
Skull Mantra
by Eliot Pattison
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2001 (1999)
Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I don't believe everything I read on a book's cover, but when the blurb on The Skull Mantra compares this thriller to greats like Gorky Park and Smilla's Sense of Snow, it's dead on. Pattison has written a remarkable first novel, which places an indomitable protagonist in the disturbing political setting of contemporary Tibet. Who hasn't heard of the plight of the Tibetan people after the brutal Chinese takeover with its erasure of ancient monasteries, genocidal treatment of monks and nuns, and forced labor camps?

But the author has not taken the obvious approach of using a local hero. Instead, he incarcerated Shan Tao Yun, a veteran Chinese police inspector, with the prison population of Lhadrung Valley in Southern Tibet. Shan, 'the last honest man in Beijing', did too good a job of investigating corruption in the capital and offended a prominent official. He suffered torture and 'reeducation', but has found new friends in the Buddhist monks who are fellow laborers in the 'People's 404th Construction Brigade'. It is they who 'made it possible for him to leave behind the pain of his past, to stop looking back.'

While building roads in the service of socialism, one of the 404th monks beats the vultures to the discovery of a headless corpse, whose clothing denotes an affluence that cannot be ignored. In the absence of the local prosecutor and with American tourists about to descend on the Valley, its governor, Colonel Tan, blackmails Shan into investigating - under guard of course. When Shan protests his inexperience as a prosecutor, Tan dismisses his comment with an interesting insight into the country's bureaucracy 'I commanded a missile base. Someone decided I was qualified to administer a county.'

The investigation uncovers links to an ancient shrine filled with gold-plated skulls, a mineral mining venture run by Americans, the ragyapa caste that slices Tibet's dead for sky burials, and to local officials who obstruct the search for truth. The ambitious assistant prosecutor charges a monk called Sungpo (a 'tsampsa' seized from his hermitage) with the murder, whereas Shan is convinced of his innocence. The pressure is on since the 404th have refused to work until rituals restore harmony in the place of death. The authorities refuse to allow it and have called in Public Security, the 'Knobs'. Massacre of prisoners revered by Shan is imminent.

Colonel Tan improves with acquaintance and Chinese other than Shan exhibit goodness. Doctor Sung was exiled for the sin of prioritizing a serious epidemic amongst minority children above the minor ailments of the families of Party members, and Sergeant Feng learns to respect his prisoner and his own past. On the other hand, not all of the Tibetans are forgiving monks. A khampa prisoner attacks Shan, and the assistant assigned to him, Yeshe, is torn between his monastic upbringing and the desire to collaborate and improve his lot amongst the oppressors.

The Skull Mantra is riveting. If you are interested in the situation of Tibet or in Buddhism, or simply in reading an excellent thriller, rush to acquire this book. It is steeped in the region's spirit of tolerance in the face of atrocity, and has some important messages for us all ... about hope in extreme adversity, the folly of naive intervention, and the trap of demonizing individuals for the actions of a government, no matter how reprehensible they might be. I can't wait to get hold of the sequel Water Touching Stone, just released in hardcover.

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