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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Behind Eliot Pattison's Mandarin Gate

For my first review of 2013 I will be blogging about Tibetan mystery  Mandarin Gate by Eliot Pattison.  It is the most recent in a favorite series.  It is not among Pattison's best, but I have learned a bit more about Buddhism as a result of reading it.  My votes for best in Pattison's Inspector Shan series would go to Water Touching Stone and Prayer of the Dragon.  I have also very much enjoyed the first in his Colonial American series, Bone Rattler, which like the novels by Sara Donati , established alliances between Scottish arrivals in America and Native Americans on the model of The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper.

Inspector Shan, once a crime investigator in Beijing, is now to quote him "an official damned inspector of dams" in Tibet. From a plot perspective, I could have wished for more believability.  Readers are asked to swallow some incredible stupidity on the part of the Chinese regime in Mandarin Gate.  I am willing to believe that Chinese government functionaries can be corrupt, but not idiotic.  Chinese government decisions described in this book contradict what I know about their established policies.  If policy had been followed, a number of the characters could not have played the roles they did.  It boggled my mind that it didn't occur to the bureaucrats in Beijing that these particular decisions could cause them a great deal of trouble.  I know that we are supposed to suspend disbelief for fiction, but there are limits.  Pattison owes me new suspenders.  My current set of disbelief suspenders got stretched too far and are completely ruined.

On the other hand, I very much liked the extremely conflicted and mysterious character, Jamyang.  I was fascinated by his practice of  painting Buddhist symbols on household objects.  It reminded me of similar practices among native peoples in the Americas.  One object that is mentioned in this novel is a tea churn with the Eight Auspicious Signs painted on it.  Since I had never heard of this set of symbols before,  I took a look at the  article about them at The Buddhist Studies website.  This page explains their spiritual significance and shows images of each one.  Jamyang also painted spiritual signs on a gun.  This seems to contradict the non-violent stance of Tibetan Buddhism.  In fact, one of the  mysteries that Shan faces early in the plotline is to discover Jamyang's motive for decorating a gun in that manner.  Over the course of the novel he learns a great deal more about Jamyang, who is definitely one of the most complex Tibetan characters that I've seen in this series.


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