Friday, January 23, 2015

Adventure classics -- Tutoring a young god-king

Seven Years in Tibet

By Heinrich Harrer

***

What is it about Heinrich Harrer’s reluctance to return home that seems so odd? He and a fellow Austrian mountaineer had undertaken a desperate trek across the Himalayas to escape from a British prisoner of war camp in India. After months crossing Tibet, he and his companion learned that the Second World War that had brought about his internment was over. But though he had left behind a wife and son (never mentioned in his book) and been without any word about them for years, he clung to life in Tibet.

The reason, he pleaded in his 1953 adventure classic, Seven Years in Tibet, was fear of reinternment (possibly with good cause, considering his history as a member of the SS, an unpleasant fact also deleted from his narrative).

“Often as we sat and listened to the radio bringing reports from our country we shook our heads at the depressing news,” Harrer wrote. “There seemed no inducement to go home.”

His wife had, in fact, already divorced him (as would his second wife), perhaps realizing he could never love anyone as much as he loved mountains. It was as if he had found everything he really wanted in the isolated mountain kingdom.

Everything, including a son to make up for the one he lost. And what a son.

In the “vision of another world,” as Harrer describes what he saw during the procession marking his first lunar New Year in Tibet: “we fancied we saw strange flowers bowing their heads in the breeze and heard the rustling of the robes of gods¼ Then the God raised his hand in blessing.”

Later, Harrer would become acquainted with the parents and brothers of the Dalai Lama, progressing to an informal tutorship with the 14-year-old boy who was (and is) the incarnation of the patron god of Tibet, Chenrezi, “the God of Grace, one of the thousand Living Buddhas, who have renounced Nirvana in order to help mankind,” Harrer wrote. "My life in Lhasa had now begun a new phase. My existence had an aim¼ to instruct this clever lad¾ the ruler of a land as big as France, Spain, and Germany put together¾ in the knowledge and science of the Western world, seemed a worthwhile task, to say the least.”

Did it cross Harrer’s mind that he had scope for more personal power than he would ever receive in Europe, than he would have received even if Hitler, who had posed for a picture once with him as a young athlete, had held onto his conquests?

But Harrer’s power would be even more fleeting than Hitler’s, lost in the soon-to-come conquest of Tibet by Communist China. He left Lhasa in November 1950, soon followed by the still-teenaged Dalai Lama. “He had come to the throne at the very moment when Fate had decided against him,” Harrer lamented.

Late in Harrer’s life, following the release of the 1997 film based on his book (and whose poster is today’s illustration) the darker side of his past caught up with him. Documents found in the Berlin state archives after World War II showed that Harrer had been affiliated with the Nazi Party since the early 1930’s.

It was apparently news to everyone associated with the film, including the Dalai Lama.

“The Dalai Lama told his friend that if his conscience was clear, he had nothing to fear,” the New York Times reported in Harrer’s January 10, 2006, obituary. “Mr. Harrer said it was.”

(Next Friday, the end of Shangri-La. Or not?)