Debut fiction describing the bloodstained last days of Tibetan chieftains before the Chinese communists took over their lands in 1949.
The tale is set in the Tibetan borderlands during the first half of the 20th century. Now part of Sichuan, the region was then ruled by powerful chieftains who lived like medieval barons. The son of one of them, Chieftain Maiqi, narrates. Commonly perceived to be an idiot because he doesn’t talk much and often looks vacant-eyed, the unnamed narrator is anything but stupid—indeed, the device of having people constantly call him “idiot” ultimately grows strained. Recalling his pampered childhood with slaves in attendance, a Buddhist lama and family historian on call, he details a brutal, colorful world. Each chieftain has an executioner, numerous concubines, and a standing army. There are no cars or electricity, the medicine is traditional and the customs antique. But the years bring dire changes. Chieftain Maiqi becomes extremely rich and powerful when a Chinese official orders him to grow opium; envious of his profits, fellow chieftains steal seeds and plant their own lands entirely with red poppies, but they starve when a bad winter ensues. Only Chieftain Maiqi has planted grain, heeding the advice of his now-teenaged son and saving his people. Respected more as he grows older, the narrator also warns his father and elder brother that they are stalked by assassins bent on avenging the death of kin executed by the chieftain. As the outside world intrudes and the Red army takes over, he ruefully recalls the historian who once told him “history means learning about today and tomorrow from yesterday.” The author, himself an ethnic Tibetan who lives in Sichuan, eschews conventional chronology and epic sweep in favor of an episodic, lyric, and low-key narrative
A compelling portrait of an unfamiliar place on the cusp of modernity: a promising new writer.