Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Travers was really a Nazi

The Dr has a thing for travelogues from yesteryear, and somewhen I managed to find her Seven Years in Tibet. It’s a battered, well-thumbed second edition from 1953, with the price 3/ pencilled on the inside back cover, and a “Boots Booklovers’ Library” sticker on the front. The sort of book that looks like it might have had as many adventures as its author.

I read a different copy about a decade ago, having had my interest piqued by Earthling. Bowie’s own Seven Years in Tibet,
“coincided with a wave of high-profile American support for the country’s plight during the mid-1990s. Major motion pictures like Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet (a 1997 dramatization of Harrer’s memoir which had no direct connection with the Bowie track) made the subject Hollywood’s cause du jour.”

Nicholas Pegg, The Complete David Bowie, p. 138.

It begins as an escape story, unusual – at least as far as I’m concerned – because it’s teller is a German POW escaping English camps in India. We’re told that “the English took a sporting view of our bold [first] attempt” to escape (p.19). I like the swagger of the Germans’ next, more successful effort on 29 April 1944. They’re made up as Indians, with shaved heads and turbans, pretending to be a work party repairing the perimeter. (The posts setting out the barbed-wire fences were prone to attack by white ants.) In these brilliant disguises they just walk out of the camp with two colleagues in bored English uniform as escort.
“We attracted no attention and only stopped once, when the sergeant-major rode by the main gate on his bicycle. Our ‘officers’ chose that moment to inspect the wire closely. After that we passed out through the gate without causing the guard to bat an eyelid. It was comforting to see them saluting smartly and obviously suspicious of nobody. Our seventh man, Sattler, who had left his hut rather late, arrived after us. His face was black and he was swinging a tarpot energetically. The sentries let him through.”

Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet (trans. Richard Graves), p.21 (my edition, not in the one linked to!).

Once over the border into Tibet, Harrer and his fellows struggle to get food, shelter or any kind of acceptance. Tibetans living near the border, he comes to understand, are not encouraged to help or trade with foreigners. There follows a vivid, Boy’s Own account of hardship. The Germans press on into the interior, with lively adventures outwitting local dignitaries who want them deported, and brigands who’ll take even their scant few possessions. We learn of the temperament of yaks and the customs of the caravans. Though there’s no capital punishment, convicted criminals can die from the brutal state ‘revenge’.

In the last third, the book becomes something else entirely. Harrer and one other, Aufschnaiter, reach the capital, Lhasa, and suddenly find themselves accepted, so long as they’re of use to the government. They stay in Lhasa for five whole years, which Harrer glosses over rather briskly (1947 passes in a flash). Their public works include a dam and a water fountain, and eventually Harrer becomes tutor to the Dalai Lama.

Kundun (as his family call him) is barely into his teens, a rather lonely but keenly intelligent boy. He’s fascinated by telescopes and the cinema, and at one point – with Harrer’s encouragement – even makes his own film:
“He had not, of course, had a huge choice of subjects. He had done a big sweeping landscape of the valley of Lhasa, which he turned much too fast. Then came a few under-lighted long-distance pictures of mounted noblemen and caravans passing through Shö. A close-up of his cook showed that he would have liked to take film portraits. The film he had shown me was absolutely his first attempt and had been made without instructions or help. When it was over he got me to announce through the microphone that the performance was over. He then opened the door leading into the theatre, told the abbots that he did not need them any more and dismissed them with a wave of his hand. It was again clear to me that here was no animated puppet, but a clear-cut individual will capable of imposing itself on others.”

Ibid., p. 251.

For something so briefly gone into, their friendship is warm and profound. By this time, there’s also an awareness of the political context, and Harrer reports on attempted coups, infighting and the growing threat from China. It’s not, it turns out, just a threat.

Oddly, we get very little on Harrer’s own background (bar his sporting achievements) and he hardly mentions the outcome of the war – which he discovers while in Tibet – or of the hardships being suffered back home. He and Aufschnaiter concede that they’ve little in the way of ties back home anyway. We get no sense of his own politics, other than the rallying cry for a free Tibet.

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