Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by Barbara Demick

3/5 Stars

Barbara Demick has made a bit of a career writing about tense regions of the world–she has been a correspondent in Eastern Europe, China, and South Korea. Her most successful book so far has been Nothing to Envy, a nonfiction account of life in the port town of Chongjin, North Korea. This was a fantastic read, exposing life beyond the artefices of Pyongyang, and she has continued the approach of looking at a country through the lens of a particular town or neighbourhood with Logavina Street (examining Bosnia through a neighbourhood of Sarejevo) and now Eat the Buddha, looking at the larger Tibet-China conflict through the residents of Ngaba, a town in the Tibetan highlands that has been dubbed the ‘self-immolation capital of the world’. The premise of this one sounded really intriguing, but at the end, it feels like Demick bit off a lot more than she could chew with this one.

I’m too young to really remember the era when Tibet was the hottest celebrity cause of the day, and my knowledge of Tibet and its history with China before this book was admittedly scant (and my larger knowledge of Buddhism is pretty much informed by my AP Art History class and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, so I was really coming in blind). This book functions as a solid primer to the extremely complicated issue of China, Tibet, and their struggles for power. It certainly feels like a topical read with China in the news for well, everything lately, and definitely slots in well with other news stories of internet censorship and the Uighur conflicts in Western China. Still, as with much of Demick’s previous work, she is faced with brick wall after brick wall of censorship, state vitriol, and her subjects’ general mistrust of journalists (especially Western ones). This can sometimes work to her advantage, but sometimes you wonder how much of the tight-lipped behaviour was her choice.

Demick chooses to cast a few characters in her story of Ngaba. The first few chapters focus on Gonpo, who was a young princess of a Tibetan fifedom when the Red Army came marching in. Starving and bedraggled from the harsh Tibetan weather, they ate the votive offerings at temples they sacked (hence the title) and set off decades of struggle. She then focuses on Tsegyam, a Tibetan educator who first fell in with the party line to eventually lead a charge to revive the Tibetan language and culture in the region’s schools. The narrative continues to cycle through other figures, single mothers who sell goods along the main drag in Ngaba and eventually join the protests themselves, young monks who grow frustrated with the state censorship of their own education, and the vibrant Tibetan exile community in India, meeting its own conflicts with the government there. They’re interesting profiles, but some start to run into each other as the book continues.

Demick often explores the juxtaposition between Buddhism, seen by the world as an inherently peaceful religion, and the violent protest of self-immolation. As with her previous works, the descriptions of the natural landscape of Tibet are breathtaking, and set the scene in a way few other nonfiction writers could really accomplish. The recurring motif of Free Tibet slogans on prayer flags was a great way to ground the story (and a nice touchstone to compare with the proliferation of Free-Tibet merchandise that pops up on college campuses and street fair junk stalls on this side of the world).

My main gripe with this book is that it takes a loooong time to really get going. With Nothing to Envy, I was coming in with a more solid framework–I already knew that North Korea was a reclusive and totalitarian world, and Demick figured as such from her readers, so far less time was spent setting up the context. Demick set off the narrative with the big, turning-point moment of the death of Kim Il-Sung, and how that reckoning–coupled with the collapse of Soviet support–exposed the chinks in the armour. With Eat the Buddha, she can’t really set off with a bang. There’s just so much to explore in the Cultural Revolution years alone the narrative is quickly sidetracked. The first half gets bogged down in a lot of ‘postcardy’ descriptions of Tibet, lots of butter and yaks and saffron robes with occasional spurts of Maoist-era history. It felt like she wasn’t doing her best work. It isn’t until Demick finally arrives to 2008, when the splendour of the Beijing Olympics exacerbated the development gaps between the Han Chinese and minorities, and a more violent Tibetan uprising began. Demick finds her feet from here on out, but it was a pretty arduous journey getting there.

Demick has been a correspodent in Asia for decades and has the experience to back this sort of book up. While I enjoy her writing and especially her style of looking into the lives of ‘everyday’ Tibetans, the throwaway details in this left me craving more. She’s interviewed the Dalai Lama multiple times and barely discusses him until the ending, an odd choice for a book about Tibet, and a potentially alienating one for readers who know little of Buddhism otherwise. The scenes discussing her encounters with the Dalai Lama were great, but I almost didn’t make it there. I found myself doing a lot of outside Googling to piece together some elements of this book, and while I’ll gladly go into a days-long Wikihole after finishing a good nonfiction book, I don’t really want to have to pause my reading to do research. And the copious endnotes make it seem like Demick rushed to get this work off the presses, and it’s never great when a new release nonfiction already feels dated. Maybe that’s just 2020 for you.

The length of this review kind of expresses my main issue with this book–it’s a long, very long journey, with beautiful sights and some interesting things to see, but when you finally get to the top, you just feel like shrugging and saying is that it? I still wholeheartedly recommend Nothing to Envy, but when it comes to Tibet, I’m still looking for nirvana elsewhere.

EAT THE BUDDHA at Amazon.co.uk:

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