In general perception, Tibet has long been subject of mythologization. Western movies tend to portray it as the spiritual and magical kingdom of contemplative landscapes, with colorful prayer flags blowing in the wind against the backdrop of clear blue skies. A daily routine is a construct of rituals performed by mysterious monks stripped of any individuality as if they were heavenly creatures, not humans of flesh and blood. However, the audience familiar with the works of Tibetan director Pema Tseden knows the more accurate and de-idealized picture. Pema Tseden, due to his valuable insider’s perspective, shows the ordinary reality of his country. Not all his fans may know that this acclaimed movie maker, whose films have been shown worldwide including the lineups of prestigious festivals, is also a wordsmith. He writes both in Tibetan and Chinese and in his writing, same as in his films, he portrays his compatriots and his homeland giving insight into modern Tibet: a place balancing between tradition and modernization, which faces the challenges of transition and development as well as inevitable sociopolitical changes.
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Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani and Michael Monhart, Chinese and Tibetan language scholars, selected and translated ten of Tseden’s stories into English, creating the captivating collection “Enticement”, illustrated with the traditional artworks of Wu Yao. As one of the translators explained the choice of the title in their interview:
It is the title of one of the stories included in this book, with a young protagonist who feels irresistibly attracted to a set of Buddhist scriptures (pecha) that do not belong to him. There is a beautiful image in this story where he sees rays of light looking like bright rainbow-colored ceremonial scarfs (khata) emanating from the pecha, embracing him and pushing to pick up the scriptures. As avid readers of Pema Tseden’s stories and as translators, we felt this kind of attraction, appreciation, and reverence for the stories we were translating.
And indeed, there is something irresistibly alluring in those texts. For a non-Tibetan, they are a window into the unaccustomed world, which – with every page – becomes more and more familiar. The writer becomes our guide, and we realize that no matter how distant and new the landscapes seem, the longings, fears, and hopes he addresses are something we may share as human beings, irrespective of our roots. Pema Tseden’s stories are laconic, concise, and very modest in narrative strategies. They differ in style, switching from realistic depictions of life (“Afternoon” or “Men and Dog”), to the philosophical treatise in a form of a dialogue (“The Doctor”), from poetic fables replete with magic realism (“Gang”) and reflections on religiousness, meandering between sacred and profane (“Enticement”, “Orgyan’s Teeth” ), to fantastic dreamscapes (“A single Sheet of Paper”) and even re-telling of classic Tibetan folk tales (“A New Golden Corpse Tale: Gun”). As to the latter, the spirit of traditional tales fills his works. And not without a reason, as the author grew up listening to the folk tales circling in his community, which were his earliest exposure to the literature. We can find traces of that oral legacy in the common usage of repetitions, the simplicity of style, and the surreal entwining with real.
He treats his characters with attention and empathy, often adding unpretentious humor to their experience. His protagonists come from different backgrounds. A shepherd boy meeting a foreigner, with whom he shares a brief moment of brotherly connection despite not sharing any common language. A man, whose school friend, not as good in math as the main character himself, was identified as reincarnated lama (“Orgyan’s Teeth” is one of the top selections in this collection). A shepherd, who suddenly needs to get an ID card he never had (excellent “Tharlo” which was later adapted by the author for the big screen). A boy trying to secretly meet his girl. A character meeting someone named like him (the motive appears also in Tseden’s movie “Jinpa”). A character longing for someone met in dreams. They all share human joys and sorrows, desires and affections, weaknesses and strengths in their search of love or transcendence or peace.
In a preface author mentions: For me, writing is a way to achieve inner peace. The unhurried rhythm of these stories and their humane focus may be a way to find peace also for their readers.