Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer
Seven Years in Tibet reviewed by Trevor Paetkau
Set against the backdrop of the Second World War and Tibet’s impending invasion by China, Harrer pens an evocative account of a country suspended in time. Medieval in many ways, it is a place none-the-less, readers will deeply regret having missed.
Lhasa was not Shangrila.
The capital city of Tibet was dirty and lacked sanitation; books and recreation were hard to come by; the diet was limited; medicine was more shamanistic than practical; and technology (even the wheel) was looked upon with suspicion. Even so, it was a city easy for the Western imagination to fall in love with; laughter was a constant; curiosity and pleasure were valued beyond industry; and inspite of a rigorous religiosity, the Tibetans were perhaps the least moralizing people of the modern era.
It’s with a great breath of mountain air that Harrer references the guilelessness of his hosts; how for instance laughter was a constant and jokes, retold century after century, never failed to solicit mirth. Curiousity, religion, and pleasure were all valued beyond industry. An earthworm in a shovel of dirt would stop the construction of a ditch, the departure of a friend would require elaborate farewells, and the changing of a season would require the performance of one ritual or another. Festivals, parties, and social interactions kept Lhasans engaged — modernity’s harried pace most emphatically did not.
I mention this at the outset as a way of explaining why Seven Years in Tibet has endured as an adventurer’s tale. Apart from the power of its narrative and quality of Harrar’s prose, it proves exactly what every wanderer wants to believe; that he or she can stumble away from the complexities of today (a British POW camp) into the simplicity of yesterday (Lhasa circa 1940). It’s escapist literature writ large. And more-over, its literal.
Heinrich Harrer, The Man
Heinrich Harrer arrived in Lhasa unbidden, unwelcome, and on the lam from a British internment camp. Tenacity brought him through the city’s defenses. The size of his heart endeared him to the locals. In anecdote after anecdote we are reminded that he gave as much as he was given. – translation services, medical advice, engineering … At first a novelty in the capital, he soon became indispensable, and later a fixture.
Essentially, Harrar escaped WWII, and rode out the war in a place as far removed from the conflict as was culturally and geographically possible. The fact that he was a German citizen figures into it only tangentially; serving, more than anything, to illustrate what it means to be a decent human being, while one’s countrymen are being horribly indecent … he never deigns to impose his values, language or politics. And while perpetually curious, he is never curious in the way the throngs descending on travel hotspots today are. Granted, his primary motivations were self-motivated (escape and curiosity), but each action was self-less. And, while it all must have been terribly complex … what with geopolitical and practical issues … none of it seems to have been complicated at all. From the escape attempts to the engineering of waterworks, and construction of a movie theatre Harrer takes his situation in hand and continues apace. While there are instances where he records being homesick (Christmas in Lhasa), for the most part he conveys the feeling that there is no place he’d rather be. It’s this trait exactly that makes his account as endearing and enduring as it is.
Seven Years in Tibet, The Verdict
That said, no one would care a whit about Harrer’s, Seven Years in Tibet if it weren’t written well, or failed to intersect with the contemporary zeitgeist. Like Joshua Slocum’s, Sailing Alone Around the World, it’s an example of a non-writer penning an account of first class narrative and literary power. And like Cherry-Garrard’s, The Worst Journey in the World, it isn’t so much timeless, as it is modern in the proper sense … the prose, content and subject all seem perfectly suited to readers many decades later. There is none of that awkward disconnect between presentation and content that readers of late 19th century Adventure Literature will be familiar with. Seven Years in Tibet is direct. It feels honest. And it is not couched in acres of excess verbiage. Readers will get from point A to point Z and will have hardly sensed the passage. It fits somehow, with where we are today. For a variety of reasons it will engage the millennial mind.
At the risk of banging on a last point should be touched on … religion obviously played a role in determining the characteristics of the nation … Tibet was a theocracy with its fingers in every pie. Feudal overlords managed the provinces, monks and governors with inherited privilege governed Lhasa. Unlike our so many of our contemporary religious leaders however, the Tibetans were able to accept and revere the faith of outsiders. To their detriment, they remained neutral during the war … a neutrality that may contributed to the invasion by China and ultimate dismantling of Tibetan culture.
In the Epilogue written in 1996, Harrer makes note of the 1.2million Tibetans who lost their lives to the conflict, and near complete ransacking of the nation’s 6,000 monasteries and shrines. It had to have been a horrible introduction to modernity. And alas, it was the last nail in the coffin of our Western dreams of Shangrila.
Readers wishing to read a contemporary account of the region should check out Wickliffe Walker’s, Courting the Diamond Sow. It’s an account of the fated first descent of the Tsangpo by American kayakers. It travels through much of the spiritual terrain traversed by Heinrich Harrer. A great companion piece.
(Editors note: this review has been widely distributed on the web, it should be noted that it was first published by Trevor Paetkau at Moraine Adventure Books, and is reprinted here with his permission.)Book Review, Heinrich Harrer, Lhasa, Seven Years in Tibet, tibet
About The Open Critic
- The Open Critic aims to be a forum for the literate discussion of popular literary culture.
All comments are welcome, but not all comments are posted. Submissions are encouraged.
You are currently reading “Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer,” an entry on The Open Critic
- 06.11.07 / 12am