EAT THE BUDDHA
By Barbara Demick
changes and endless interference. In a remarkably short period, Ngaba was transformed from a feudal society presided over by a royal family, to a communist experiment of forced collectivisation, and then out the other side to the present day land of tension and frequent unrest.
As with Nothing to Envy, Demick’s skill lies in her careful choice of characters and the way she narrates their stories across many years, revealing personalities, flaws, hopes and dreams and in doing so making a political story deeply personal.
Here are young monks who just want to study and play basketball, girls bizarrely caught up in the worship of Mao, and old women with pictures of the Dalai Llama hung loosely on their walls (Chinese attitudes to such young love in pristine Icelandic fjords, watching wildlife undisturbed by largescale industry and marvelling at the first of NASA’s space flares launched in the Arctic Circle.
Magnason argues that the failure to comprehend the climate crisis can be attributed to our relationship with time. While the past is honoured for its sculpting influence over the present, the future is more obscure. ‘People live inside their own realities, locked in the prevailing language and power systems of their contemporary movement,’ he argues. His reflections on his grandparents’ glory days unbuckle us from the relentless pace of the modern day. At the same time, he shows us how quickly the seemingly distant decades and centuries of climate models can unfold. Many of Magnason’s beloved pictures changes and they often have to be removed at speed).
All are touched by the violence and fear of Chinese occupation (Ngaba is known as a hotspot of dissent and is therefore heavily guarded by soldiers), though a very human sense of resilience persists. In fact what is most remarkable is that the people of Ngaba, and Tibet in general, keep persisting; even willing to die for the cause. Demick describes the shocking wave of self immolations, which began in 2009 when the first Buddhist monk from the region doused himself in gasoline. At the time of writing, 156 Tibetans have self-immolated, a third from Ngaba and its environs – a truly remarkable place, and a remarkable people.
Icelandic glaciers, once heralded as eternal forces in Nordic mythology, have already lost glacial status due to accelerated melting.
Magnason explores a disconnect unique to our present generation, when nature no longer exists as an immutable force of its own governance. His solution is to adopt a more romantic reverence for nature’s beauty and power. Decisions on environmental protection should not be based on economic imperatives, but instead on our elemental affinities with the natural world.
For all the loftiness of the subject, the book is written with wonder, care and the intuition of human experience. With each memory recounted, Magnason brings us into a world more aware of the unerring ebb and flow of time.
It is always a treat to come across a fellow Francophile, particularly one as engaging, intelligent and witty as Viv Groskop – a distinguished British writer, journalist and comedienne. Her latest book is a heart-felt and beautifully written love letter to France and to French literature in which Groskop introduces the reader to her favourite twelve French writers – from Francoise Sagan to Albert Camus, via Hugo, Flaubert, Maupassant and others. The origins of Groskop’s ‘Francomania’ go back to adolescence when she visited France as an exchange student. It was then that she first arrived at a life-changing conclusion: ‘If you want to be happy, it’s best to be French.’ A fluent French speaker (and a voracious reader of French literature) she was quick to contract that lucratively infectious French malaise called Joi de vivre and has so far been brilliant at spreading it among her readers.
Inspired to start learning French by Jacques Demis’ iconic musical ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ as a teenager in the 1960s USSR, I am in full agreement with Groskop when she asserts that ‘there is a swagger to French thinking that is not shared by other cultures’.
Alongside the countless witty one-liners – always precise, punchy and worthy of a stand-up comedy gig – are personal, yet always spot-on, analyses of Groskop’s favourite French classics. I love the way she jokingly sums up Bel Ami, the best-known novel of Guy de Maupassant, as: ‘the bigger the moustache, the greater the fall’, and Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse as: ‘Interfering in your father’s love life can have dire consequences’.
Groskop’s irrepressible wit aside, her perception of France is also profoundly romantic, reminiscent of that of the Russian-born writer Andrei Makine. In his Prix de Goncourt-winning novel Le Testament Francais, he refers to France – both geographically and emotionally – as the mysterious and remote ‘Atlantis’, where ‘presidents die in the arms of their mistresses’, the land whose melodious language ‘throbbed within us, like a magical graft implanted in our hearts’.
All writers know that books work best when written about something the author loves. Viv Groskop’s latest work is a good example of that.
To sum it all up in French: Au revoir, tristesse! Vive la literature!
VITALI VITALIEV by Amitav Ghosh (2016)
A provocative book about climate change, exploring why we are so incapable of processing what is happening before our eyes.
Worshippers spin prayer wheels at Labang Monastery, Tibet
The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town • Granta Books
Cafe de Flore in Paris, the hangout of many a famous author