Blue Poppies. Jonathan Falla. 11/9 Press 2001
(This review originally appeared in a slightly different version in Dharma Life magazine.)
Blue Poppies, a novel set in Tibet in 1950, tells of the love-affair between a crippled Tibetan widow, Puton, and a young Scottish radio operator, Jamie Wilsom. Set against the backdrop of the Chinese invasion of Tibet of 1950, this book smacks of authenticity from the outset. Falla is alive to texture, colour, smell and sound – from the scent of rancid butter to the precise feel of a yak’s tongue, the world he evokes is almost entirely convincing.
When the Communist army arrives to ‘liberate’ the village of Jyeko, it behaves with the most impressive military decorum; but as the book progresses things turn sour. After the murder of some Communist troops, a goatherd is tortured, humiliated and executed in the village square. The villagers take their revenge by savagely massacring of Chinese forces at a ping-pong match held in the monastery. Even the absurdity of these strange juxtapositions seems to ring true. The massacre in the monastery sets the entire village on the road to exile, with Jamie acting as their guide through the wilderness.
It is with the figure of Jamie, the radio operator from Inverkeithing, that Blue Poppies fails to convince. Part Moses, part Christ, he is a bizarre and not entirely palatable figure. The star of his sainthood blazes ever brighter as the story unfolds, his apotheosis only reaching completion when, in the wake of the slaughter of a Chinese patrol by the exiled villages, he rides off on a yak in tears. ‘Jesus wept,’ Falla tells us. Even though the people of Jyeko do not reach the Promised Land, I baulked at Jamie’s sanctity. Less human than his Tibetan companions, he seemed like some atavistic throw-back to those old colonial adventure yarns in which a single white man brings liberation to a horde of benighted savages.
Despite such misgivings, this is an exciting and moving book. Remarkably, Falla himself has never been to Tibet. That he can conjure up the world of the Tibetan plateau so convincingly is a testament to his powers of imagination. It is also a testament to the way in which a story, told with passion and conviction, can bear more truth and meaning than any amount of careful research. But then what do I know? I have never been to Tibet either.