HarperCollins, £20, 333pp

Tibet, Tibet: a personal history of a lost land, by Patrick French

The Dalai Lama may not be, as Rupert Murdoch said, 'a political old monk in Guccis'. But Justin Wintle argues that he has done his share of pussyfooting

I have sometimes wondered what Voltaire, who characterised Muhammad as the founder of a totalitarian religious dictatorship in a way too few of today's ink-wallahs dare contemplate, would have made of the Dalai Lama? I am sure he would have lambasted the idea of the reincarnate succession, along with the myriad superstitions that make Tibetan Buddhism the ragbag belief system it is.

Then he would have had a few sharp words about the survival of an essentially medieval theocracy well into the 20th century, one which the present Dalai Lama, until his flight to India in 1959, contentedly upheld. Beyond that, Voltaire would almost certainly have made merry with the disjunctive welcome the Dalai Lama has received in the modern, secularist West.

Why the Dalai Lama is almost as beloved outside Tibet as he is among "true" Tibetans is attributable to two related circumstances. First, the personality of the man himself: the 14th Dalai Lama exudes an aura of serendipitous personal virtue, expressed as an articulate spirituality that, just because it challenges our materialism, finds favour with us. Secondly, he is a figurehead associated with opposition to the inhumanities of Chinese Communism, a brutality nowhere made more manifest than in Tibet itself. Yet Chinese Communism, like its Soviet parent, is itself predicated on materialism.

Where the Dalai Lama triumphs is in his ineffable ability to split the one materialism from the other. Ours is instinctive, unconscious, enriching; theirs is conscious, dogmatic, degrading. By responding to his iconic loveliness – as it is assumed no orthodox Beijing cadre can – we reassure ourselves that we are not, after all, devoid of immaterial merit.

Ironically, Chinese ideologues, from Mao Zedong to Jiang Zemin's apparatchiks, also caricature the Dalai Lama as a "splittist", albeit in a different sense. For them, the "Holder of the White Lotus" is an infernal reactionary who has inhibited Tibet's progress towards a socialist proletarian paradise by maintaining the government in exile in Dharamsala which, since 1959, has encouraged Tibetan nationalism, and Tibetan resistance, by its mere existence. As a result, China has felt compelled to maintain a murderous grip over a "minority" people where, apropos other minorities, the same grip has been steadily relaxed

This, as Patrick French adumbrates in Tibet, Tibet, is Tibet's great dilemma. By remaining faithful to their inherited cultural values, however idiosyncratic they may seem to outsiders, Tibetans make life much harder for themselves in a world where no foreign power will intervene for fear of upsetting the mighty People's Republic or its own trade relations. The more sensible, more pragmatic line to take, as some Tibetans have already done, is to work the system. Only by joining the government can Tibetans hope to ameliorate its policies. But unless all Tibetans do this, China's imperialist belligerence will persist.

"I doubted," French concludes toward the end of his enlightening but uneven book, "whether a free Tibet had any meaning without a free China". His words are given added weight by the author's resignation as a director of the Free Tibet Campaign, which he helped found in 1996. Significantly, it was after travelling inside Tibet that French reached his decision.

Tibet, Tibet is uneven in several ways. It attempts an impersonal account of Tibet while ballooning personal adventures. It is both a travel book and recycled history, and its tenor changes. One problem is that French wants the limited time he has spent in Tibet to count for as much as possible. Of the book's two parts, the first is admirably ruminative, while the second at times devolves into an anti-Maoist rant.

French is particularly good on the Dalai Lama himself, coming at him from all angles, as befits any living icon. While Martin Scorsese's film Kundun is dismissed as "Dalaidolatry", Rupert Murdoch's remark that the Dalai Lama is "a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes" neatly gets its comeuppance. French says that the Dalai Lama "would not know his Guccis from his Nikes".

How the Dalai Lama's strictures against gay sex are airbrushed out of American publications is noted, as is the coincidence of his birth into a high lamaist family – the rule in lamaist incarnation. Above all French's 14th Incarnation is an ingénu, whose naivety prevents him from comprehending how he has imperilled his people. He is incapable, in fact, of having a political strategy.

The sufferings of his people are drawn in a series of scattered witness-type interviews conducted by the author with, among others: Nyima, an ex-nun; Ugyen, a member of Lhasa's toilet-cleaning Ragyaba outcastes; Raduk Ngawang, a veteran freedom fighter; and Pema Wanglha, a woman activist.

Each has endured unpalatable torment. There are, too, striking accounts of time spent with some of the few surviving Tibetan nomads in Qinghai, and a hellish bus ride across the Tibetan plateau. But some elements of the bigger picture are all but ignored: China's historic need to shore up its western defences, for instance, or the endemic violence and corruption of traditional Tibetan society.

If French's book gets into difficulties, though, that is only a reflection of the intrinsic difficulty of its subject-matter. Tibet, Tibet is intelligent as well as passionate in its approach. Voltaire, were he to be born again, might profit from its compassion.

Justin Wintle's 'Rough Guide History of Islam' is published next month

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness