The latest novel, by prolific travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron, To a Mountain in Tibet takes us on a very personal journey to Mount Kailas—one of the most sacred and rarely traveled to mountains in the world.
After the death of his mother, Thubron decides to trek through the central Himalayas with only a Nepalese guide and cook. A trek that turns out to be a relatively isolated reflection of his life, with focused memories of family members who are no longer with him.
As much as I wanted to enjoy this book it was a little like a lukewarm bath; I couldn’t wait to get out. This is a deeply personal and sad book, which is written well and exhibits a great reflective style, but also one filled with tremendous detail on the history of the Tibetan people and their customs.
While ordinarily I find this form of travelogue interesting, there was little in this book that engaged me as a reader. Much like Thubron’s arduous journey through the cold and desolate landscape, I found myself trapped inside his meandering thoughts for an arduous 218 pages, gasping at altitude. His memories and personal beliefs seemed detached from the story itself, which had the potential to provide some colour to the landscape, but instead the reader remained but a slightly distanced observer.
This novel requires a great deal of concentration and reflection and I wonder if memories are sometimes like diary entries—perhaps only interesting to those who experienced them.
I have read similarly themed novels on treks through forbidden cities of Tibet, but feel, unfortunately, that others have done it better.
Having said this, there appears to be unanimous admiration and appreciation of this book out in the world, gracing bookstore ‘staff recommended’ lists and with glowing reviews. Perhaps I lack the concentration required to fully appreciate the story at hand.
My appreciations lies more towards the author himself, tackling such a journey in his seventies—and appearing to be less affected by the journey than some of the locals who are traveling with him!
Thubron lacks no skill to turn a phrase and produces beautifully crafted sentences throughout the entire novel, with lines like, ‘Easy to imagine this an apocalyptic fracture in the order of things, a portent of sacred chaos, or at least a fanfare for the dawning holy month. I stand outside my tent, distracted by some dream I have forgotten,’ scattered across the novel like nuggets of written gold.
To a Mountain in Tibet does indeed read like some dream that is forgotten, but is being remembered again in the way that can only be remembered when we have the silence to do so.
Published on Media-Culture Reviews.