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

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