The Magician of Lhasa
Reading with a writer’s eye, I’ve always been an admirer of first-person, present-tense narrative. A difficult literary style but, when done well, it can give an unparalleled sense of immediacy to a story. The prologue of The Magician of Lhasa begins just so. The reader is immediately in the temple, at the feet of the Buddha, lighting butter lamps. Then, just as quickly, we’re outside in the chaos of the impending arrival of the Red Army. It’s 1959.
The novel slips in and out of back-story past tense, as it inevitably must, in an almost seamless way. Tenzin Dorje is a novice Tibetan monk with a penchant for Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock”—he memorizes the words, even though he doesn’t know what phrases like “glad rags” mean. Tenzin and his brother embark on a special mission with their Lama. We don’t immediately find out what this mission is, but we know it’s very important.
Tension is heightened.
Matt Lester is a quantum scientist, working on his pet nanotech project. He relocates from London to Los Angeles with his fiancé, Isabella, as a result of what seems at first sight like a chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity. However, things soon go wrong, as Matt and Isabella are forced to separate, and there are sinister aspects of the job that worry Matt. This is almost fifty years after Tenzin Dorje began his prophetic journey through the Himalayas, but the lives of the two men are strangely connected.
The novel interweaves alternative, yet parallel, chapters, dealing with Tenzin’s harrowing journey out of Tibet and Matt’s gruelling initiation into the high-flying world of L.A. Tenzin’s special mission is to carry the ancient scrolls of the Buddhist sage, Padmasambhava, to safety in the land of the “red-faced people.” Matt is trying to get over his fiancé’s departure, which was acrimonious because of family and career hang-ups from home, while having a recurring nightmare about sliding down an ice sheet into a terrible void.
The end of each chapter leaves the reader on a precipice of tension and expectation, sustaining the page-turning momentum and making the novel difficult to put down.
Matt comes into contact with his next-door neighbor, a Tibetan monk of interminable age called Geshe-la. They discuss the insubstantiality of existence over a cup of coffee and discover that the language of quantum theory and the language of Buddhist theology are saying pretty much the same thing. Matt also encounters Alice, a disciple of Geshe-la, whom he’s attracted to and who seems to be a ready substitute for his departed fiancé—until Isabella unexpectedly returns.
Things get worse for both Tenzin and Matt. The novice monk is captured by Red Army soldiers while trying to smuggle the precious scrolls out of Tibet, and Matt realizes his new job is just a front, used by an unscrupulous corporate raider who is only interested in his research ideas. Once he has them, he will get rid of Matt and the dream will be over. Both Buddhist and scientist struggle against the odds to reach their final destination, to achieve their final goal—which turns out to be common to both of them.
When it comes, the connection between Tenzin and Matt isn’t expected, but it is, nevertheless, a revelation of almost transcendental proportions. The final chapter takes us full circle, like a cycle of reincarnation.
David Michie, quite apart from his résumé, is obviously highly accomplished in the protocols of Buddhism, and he writes about them in a way that’s full of joy and karmic serenity. The novel could have descended into textbook prosthelytizing or a kind of preaching-to-the-converted, but the author avoids this by constantly questioning the observations of both Geshe-la and his protégé, Alice. He makes a good case for meditative practices, as opposed to knee-jerk interpretations of cause and effect—“if meditation was available in capsule form, it would be the biggest selling drug of all time.”
Trapdoor Books, a new press on the block, proclaims to be a publisher of “geek fiction.” Perhaps the term “unique fiction” would be more appropriate for this emerging high-quality house and, if The Magician of Lhasa is anything to go by, geek fiction is something all intelligent book-lovers should be reading.