Sky Burial – Xinran

This is one of those books that is only on my shelves because it completes a set, in this case the twenty six volumes of Penguin Drop Caps which I have covered as a series right back at the beginning of this blog in early 2018. This does mean that I came to read the book with no preconceptions at all knowing nothing about either it or the author and I have really enjoyed it. Having said that I have a suspicion that Xinran made it into this collection more due to her name beginning with X than for the literary merit of the book. This could be the fault of the translators from the original Chinese, Julia Lovell and Esther Tydesley, as the style is rather flat which considering the subject matter seems odd but as I cannot read the original I have no way of knowing if that is better. I don’t know why Xinran didn’t make the translation as she has lived and worked as a journalist and writer in London since 1997 and this translation was first published in 2004 so presumably she would be more than capable of producing an English version herself.

The conceit of the book is that it is based on the real life story of a Chinese doctor Shu Wen who in 1958 who in 1958 at the height of the Tibetan-Chinese conflict went to Tibet to try to find out what happened to her husband who was a military doctor and ends up stranded there for over thirty years living with the nomads and travelling from camp to camp. According to the introduction Xinran met Shu Wen in Suzhou and talked to her over a period of a couple of days whilst she related her story, Shu Wen then suddenly checked out of her hotel and disappeared. Wikipedia appears to have fallen for this and describes the book as a biography but it is clearly listed as a work of fiction on the publication data page and frankly the idea that an intelligent woman would make no attempt to either continue her search or head back to China and would stay with the nomadic family for three decades is desperately unlikely. The resolution of the novel also stretches credulity to breaking point as a real life case with too many unresolved plot points being sorted out in a relatively short space of time compared to the vast amount of time with no movement on them at all.

Treating it as the novel that it is becomes far more rewarding than looking at it as a dubious biography, the book is 220 pages long in this imprint and I read it at one sitting as you do get drawn into the story. The depiction of Tibetan nomadic life is fascinating and it appears that Xinran did a significant amount of research, so you slowly learn, along with Wen, how the dynamics of family life operate. The book also largely avoids discussing the Chinese takeover of Tibet which has existed since the 1950’s, this is done by completely ignoring the subject by putting Shu Wen away from all contact with other Chinese people and any news of the world outside of the nomadic family she is with for a couple of decades. The exception is at the start where the conflict is acknowledged because that is why Shu Wen’s husband, Kejun, was in Tibet in the first place and also the description of Wen’s journey into Tibet having enlisted in the military and the surprise that her fellow soldiers have that they were not being welcomed with open arms as liberators from the rule of the Dalai Lama. This is where another extremely unlikely event occurs as Wen discusses with a senior officer and gets agreement from him to desert her unit in her search for Kejun. In a novel this is fine, strange things happen in novels, but in real life deserting the Chinese army at the time would have been punished severely.

I have deliberately not written much about the time Wen spends with the nomadic family or how the various issues are resolved as this is the real meat of the novel and any coverage would just be spoilers. Suffice to say that even though there is much that is not as good as it could be the book is a pleasant way of spending a rainy afternoon, just sit back, suspend belief a little, and go with the flow.