Apr/May 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

Prayer of the Dragon

Review by Kajsa Wiberg

Prayer of the Dragon.
Eliot Pattison.
Soho Press. 2007. 396 pp.
ISBN: 9781569474792.

When lamas Gendun and Lokesh call for investigator and fellow gulag escapee Shan's help, he is clueless as to the nature of their emergency. Yet, he hustles to meet them in the remote village of Drango, Tibet, located in the shadow of a giant summit, "the place where thunder is born." Gradually, the mystery starts to unfold before Shan's eyes. Two people have been murdered and mutilated. The only witness is a comatose stranger, who is also the sole suspect. Drango's slightly deranged headman, Chodron, has demanded that should the stranger wake up from his coma, he is to be executed. It doesn't take long before Shan realizes there's more to it.

Perusing the nearby gullies and ridges, Shan encounters a hermit, a prisoner of sorts, a herd of gold mining outlaws, and a genius albeit inexplicably antisocial scientist, accompanied by a forensics wannabe nephew and an intimidating German business partner. When people start dropping like flies in the area, at first I am relieved, as this makes a great case for the comatose man's innocence. Then he wakes up, revealing that his niece, Abigail, who he came to the mountain to protect, is missing. She is roaming the inhospitable landscape alone with the murderer at large.

Searching for Abigail, Shan and his companions discover that under the tranquil surface, every ounce of the mountain range is brewing with conflict. Besides the obvious ones of the communist government versus the time-old Tibetan religious traditions and the mountain being an old pilgrim path, there are gold and money and mistresses and corruption. It seems every man on the mountain has his own set of reasons for committing the murders.

Throughout their quest, Shan and his entourage paint a poignant portrait of an abused country, where old habits live in a slightly awkward symbiosis with modernization—both of the forced and of the humanizing kind. The fatiguing and perilous pilgrim journey to the summit can now be replaced with a short ride in a helicopter, ancient codes in paintings can be photographed and decoded, and spiritual teachings can be traded for bags of gummi bears. Amidst an array of widely varying perspectives, Shan seeks the one truth that holds it all together.

The premise for the story is brilliant; I fell for it right away. Though it must be beyond difficult to bring such a distant and unimaginable landscape as the Tibetan mountains to life, I felt as though I was there. Mr. Pattison did a wonderful job making the miners' village, the haunted ravines, the sacred meditation rooms and the isolated, poor village of Drango as genuine and vibrant as, say, the neighborhood corner shop.

I also admire the author's dedication to spreading the message of the cruelties bestowed upon the Tibetans by the Chinese. Lamas hold ancient and crucial wisdom passed down by generations, yet the Chinese almost destroyed them. When Mr. Pattison reveals a well-researched link between the Tibetans and the Navajo Indians, his case becomes more interesting still. Having driven through a large part of the Navajo reservation recently on a road trip, I was astonished by the cultural richness that lurks underneath the surface of the desolate and rugged plains they call their home. I had no idea because—as Pattison pointed out—when asked about their heritage, the Navajos speak only of their clay pots and rugs. I wish they had more influence in our society, and hope that Prayer of the Dragon will bring them all the right kinds of attention.

The main thing making me hesitate about this novel—despite the wonderful premise and the imperative message—is the characters. A set of truly three-dimensional personas, equipped with unique and strong motives, could lift this story to the clouds. Now, they come across as somewhat bland, failing to "come alive" the way truly magnificent characters do. Additionally, with the exception of Thomas and Gao, the men in this story are either "good" or "bad," thus losing some of their credibility. Shan especially, with his notorious, almost forced, unselfishness, annoyed me. Sure, he has lived through the most inhumane of conditions and studied with lamas. But everything he does is for the benefit of someone else. While selflessness undeniably is an admirable trait, in order to be truly fascinating, Shan needs a few dreams and aspirations for himself too. I also found it frustrating that while most of the time I explored this strange world from Shan's point of view, a number of times the author cut me off from key pieces of information when Shan received them (i.e. "Thomas pulled him closer and whispered in his ear. Shan went cold.") I don't doubt that Mr. Pattison has a good reason for this, but unfortunately, it didn't work at all for me.

Moreover, I found the repeated references to gulags and the torture carried out in these camps gratuitously gory. It is true that the cruelty there rivals Nazi concentration camps, yet most people never speak of them. But the descriptions are so vivid and disturbing, I more than got it the first time. Around the forth mentioning, I started to feel as though Mr. Pattison had put the references in there solely to gross me out.

I found the plot enthralling, even more so as it is set against the mountain range kept secret from the Chinese, where an unlikely mix of people coexist. Gao's modern yet secluded way of life contrasts nicely with the shaggy pack of outlaws there to mine gold. In the midst of all this is the Drango village, where people live in poverty and primitivism, even with the modern world just a ridge or two away. The thought that these worlds would exist, cramped together, with hardly any intermingling at all, walks the line to impossible, though without ever overstepping it. This, I think is a crucial part of the author's message, of a Tibet that is part ancient, part mystery, part abused, part connected to the Navajo culture, and part something utterly different from everything else I have ever known. This is what Mr. Pattison does best; contrasting worlds and cultures and belief systems. In fact, his does it so well, even though the characters annoyed me, I think I might have to read Prayer of the Dragon again.


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