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Book Review – The Open Road by Pico Iyer – 4 stars

Book cover of The Open Road by Pico Iyer

Book cover of The Open Road by Pico Iyer

It’s difficult to give a star rating to a non-fiction book, especially one that has as much breadth of subject matter as The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer.  It seems that Pico Iyer is well situated to write a biography of the Dalai Lama, considering that his father met the Dalai Lama in 1960 when he had just arrived in India and Pico has had audiences with him regularly over many years. Pico has obviously read all of the material that has already been written about the 14th Dalai Lama and Tibet and took care to find a unique angle from which to write this book. Pico is sensitive and non-judging, yet not overly in awe of the Dalai Lama and shows him to us as a man, nor is Pico a Buddhist which allows him to give an outsiders perspective to the rituals of Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism. I certainly feel enriched from having read this book and I trust Pico to have represented an honest case. Having said that, I found Pico Iyer’s writing style a little cumbersome. He uses too many asides embedded within a sentence and I frequently had to re-read the same sentence 2-3 times to unpick his meaning amongst the extraneous information.

Iyer avoids condemning Chinese policies and occupation in Tibet. He interviews some Tibetan firebrands and relates their feelings of impotence at being told to practice non-violence and one gets the sense that he fears an outbreak of violence and guerrilla warfare after the Dalai Lama dies and no-one has the authority to restrain these exasperated and displaced people, living double lives in exile and never fitting in anywhere. For example Lhasang, a former member of the Tibetan government in exile had this exchange with Pico:

‘If a man is raping a girl and she cries out for help, you don’t wait and pray for peace…The Chinese are playing for time…and we are playing into their hands. What is the good of extending a hand if the other person does not? Nothing. It takes two to shake hands.’

‘But if you extend no hand at all…you’ve given up. Nothing can be achieved.’

‘You can use that hand as a fist!’

After spending the majority of the book avoiding discussing the future of Tibet, right at the end he indicates what he really thinks:

There are no grounds for hope regarding Tibet as we know it: things just keep getting worse and worse, to the point where Tibet is almost a place of memory now. China has no real reason for wishing to give up an area it knows as the  “Western Treasure House” … the moral pressure of other governments has achieved nothing. Tibetans are in no position to resist a force that sees itself as the center of the earth and everywhere else as a mere satellite. There is simply no reason to imagine that an old Tibet could magically return.

In Patrick French’s biography Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer (which is a very interesting read if you haven’t read it yet), French relates these Tibetan proverbs which are as pertinent to Tibet now under Chinese occupation as they were during the time of Younghusband’s invasion of Tibet on behalf of England in 1903.

When you have seen a scorpion, you look on the frog as divine.

If you have two enemies, you should make one of them your friend

Poison can sometimes serve as a medicine

French goes on to say that Tibet was forced by the British to capitulate:

The Tibetan Government signed the Treaty of Lhasa… as helpless as if the sky had hit the earth

As a final aside, in the same year Iyer spoke to the Dalai Lama about being awarded the Nobel peace prize and had a glitzy birthday party full of celebrities. Iyer talked more about celebrities than his intimate conversation with the Dalai Lama and upon reflection said this pearl:

Everyone we meet we tend to cast in the light of our own tiny concerns.

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2013 by in Non-fiction and tagged , , , , , .
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