Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Mount TBR #64

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China during the years 1844-5-6 - Évariste Régis Huc, C.M. a.k.a. Abbé Huc

Father Évariste Régis Huc was a French missionary Catholic priest. After 18 months of language immersion courses in Macau, he served the Church in the south of China, but moved north to Peking. From there he determined to minister to scattered Christian communities in Mongolia and beyond that he wanted to visit Lhasa, Tibet, where only one European had visited  before.

Father Huc is quite a storyteller. Like most travel writers, he’s probably rearranged incidents for effect, but I don’t mind such liberties. He’s very down home, writing about things we can relate to. Their dog Arsalan (Lion) was a Chinese dog, explained their local guide,  and so got sick and tired of the nomadic Tatar life. Arsalan ran off in favor of town lights and glitz. Sad Fr. Huc thinks it through:

At first, the loss of Arsalan grieved us somewhat.  We were accustomed to see him running to and fro in the prairie, rolling in the long grass, chasing the grey squirrels, and scaring the eagles from their seat on the plain.  His incessant evolutions served to break the monotony of the country through which we were passing, and to abridge, in some degree, the tedious length of the way.  His office of porter gave him especial title to our regret.  Yet, after the first impulses of sorrow, reflection told us that the loss was not altogether so serious as it had at first appeared.  Each day’s experience of the nomadic life had served more and more to dispel our original apprehension of robbers.  Moreover, Arsalan, under any circumstances, would have been a very ineffective guard; for his incessant galloping about during the day sent him at night into a sleep which nothing could disturb.  This was so much the case, that every morning, make what noise we might in taking down our tent, loading the camels, and so on, there would Arsalan remain, stretched on the grass, sleeping a leaden sleep; and when the caravan was about to start, we had always to arouse him with a sound kick or two.  Upon one occasion, a strange dog made his way into our tent, without the smallest opposition on the part of Arsalan, and had full time to devour our mess of oatmeal and a candle, the wick of which he left contumeliously on the outside of the tent.  A consideration of economy completed our restoration to tranquility of mind: each day we had had to provide Arsalan with a ration of meal, at least quite equal in quantity to that which each of us consumed; and we were not rich enough to have constantly seated at our table a guest with such excellent appetite, and whose services were wholly inadequate to compensate for the expense he occasioned.

Fr. Huc was a priest, after all, so totally expectable are his dismissive and patronizing views of reincarnation. It was his job to confront the Lamas with the dogmatical and moral truths  of the One True Church:

We commenced [discussion] with Christianity.  The Regent, always amiable and polished in his conversation with us, said that, as we were his guests, our belief ought to have the honour of priority.  We successively reviewed the dogmatical and moral truths.  To our great astonishment, the Regent did not seem surprised at anything we said.  “Your religion,” he incessantly repeated, “is conformable with ours; the truths are the same: we only differ in the explanations.  Of what you have seen and heard in Tartary and Thibet, there is, doubtless, much to blame; but you must not forget that the numerous errors and superstitions you may have observed, were introduced by ignorant Lamas, and that they are rejected by well-informed Buddhists.”  He only admitted, between him and us, two points of difference—the origin of the world, and the transmigration of souls.  The belief of the Regent, though it here and there seemed to approximate to the Catholic doctrine, nevertheless resulted in a vast pantheism; but he affirmed that we also arrived at the same result, and he did his best to convince us of this.

I have to admire the sheer courage of anybody attempting such discussions  through the medium of an imperfectly mastered second language.

Full disclosure: The two volumes total about 600 pages, a major commitment even for gluttonous readers like us. All I can say is that readers that like old travel books will like this narrative. It’s in an unclassifiable class by itself like West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon or Synge’s The Aran Islands

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