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Pema Tseden’s short stories

Revised Foreword to the 2016 (pocket) edition of the collection of his short stories translated into French [1]

By Brigitte Duzan

 

Pema Tseden (万玛才旦) is famous today for his exceptional filmmaking career: he has been the first Tibetan director to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy, and, within ten years, has become the leading figure in China of a Tibetan cinema which can truly be defined as “cinéma d’auteur”.

 

This achievement is all the more exceptional since he was born, in 1969, in a family of Tibetan peasants in a small village of Qinghai province (or Amdo as it was previously called, in historical Tibet), and he stands out as the only one in the family to have pursued his studies.

 

These studies, however, were first literary studies, and his films owe a lot to the quality of his scriptwriting. He graduated first with a degree in Tibetan language from the Northwest University of Nationalities (西北民族大学) in Lanzhou (Gansu) which has become a hotbed of Tibetan intellectuals in the area. He then worked as a translator for the local administration, but, at the same time, in the early 1990’s, started to write and publish short stories.

 

Written in Tibetan, these first stories are steeped in rural Tibet, its people and culture, and reflect the world around him; but his is an inward gaze, and, from the start, a personal voice with a deep sensitivity. However – as often is the case - these early stories are experiments on form, and vary greatly in style, especially at the end of the period, from the absurd, Beckett-style, to the magical realist, Tibetan-style.

 

All along the years 2000, his writing has then evolved, and has gradually switched to a subtle painting of present-day Tibetan society, and the problems arising from the daily confrontation with modernity: deep existential and identity problems for people whose minds and day-to-day life still bear the prevalent stamp of religion in spite of official clampdown.

 

At the same time – Beckett-like again - Pema Tseden has switched from Tibetan to Chinese and back, translating into Chinese many of his stories written in Tibetan, until he eventually chose to write only in Chinese – a choice he explains in practical and linguistic terms. It is noteworthy that, as he was writing more and more in Chinese, he was also (re)claiming his Tibetan identity as a filmmaker as he signed his films with the transcription of his name in Tibetan, instead of its Chinese translation.

 

He now has published some sixty short stories, a selection of which have been edited in several collections (in Tibetan and in Chinese). The present translation into French is the first one in a foreign language, and should be followed in due course by translations into English and Japanese.

 

Selected in accordance with the author’s suggestions, the seven short stories included in the present collection offer an interesting outlook on the evolution of his writing over the period, from 1999 to 2012. Three of the stories, written between 1999 and 2002, have been translated from the Tibetan, and four from the Chinese, the most recent ones, published in two collections, in 2011 and 2014. The change in style parallel to the change in language used appears clearly as one reads on.

 

Among the stories translated from the Tibetan, the first one, “Neige” (“Snow”/”Gangs”), initially published in 1999, is often quoted as an example of a kind of magical realist style adapted to the Tibetan context [2] : steeped in a mythical and supernatural aura harking back to pre-Buddhist beliefs still lingering today, the story is the sad tale of the decadence of the old beliefs in sacred mountains and the deities dwelling on them, as they are customized into tourist attractions.

 

“Hommes et chien” (“Men and Dog”) draws on the supernatural and allegorical to depict an essentially realist story conjuring up the desolate life of herders and their flocks in the loneliness of the high Tibetan mountains, threatened by nature and wild animals, especially wolves as is the case here.

 

Third story translated from the Tibetan, « L’interview d’Akhu Thöpa » (“Akhu Thöpa’s Interview”) [3] tells the story of a journalist’s search for an old man who has dedicated his life to the collection, transcription and preservation of samples of oral literature and folk songs, and whom the newspaper wants to pay tribute to. It is a long and convoluted quest, each person encountered giving a personal evidence different from, or even contradicting, the others.

 

The story is a brilliant demonstration, at two main levels: it shows on the one hand the difficulty of cultural transmission in the midst of changing circumstances and political turmoil (here, unnamed but looming, the infamous Cultural Revolution), and on the other hand the impossibility of accurate historical records, especially based on oral testimonies, not really for political reasons, but simply because memory comes necessarily with a distortion of the past. This is Pema Tseden at his best: master of the unsaid [4], of the allusion and the relative.

 

The style of the remaining four stories of the collection, translated from the Chinese, evolve from that mastery of the unsaid, to draw a vivid picture of present-day Tibetan society, viewed from a resolutely non-historical, and (at least apparently) non-political, angle: rather from a psychological angle, that includes religious remnants of the past.

 

These stories are lively vignettes of a Tibetan society in flux, caught between tradition and modernity, countryside and urbs, starting with “Eight Sheep” (八只羊), a tender portrait of a lonely little shepherd, grieving the loss of his mother and of eight sheep of his flock killed by a wolf – then, one day, confronted with the world outside in the person of a lonely foreigner passing briefly through his pastures, and his life – yet the image of the outside is more traumatic for the foreigner that for the little boy who is left to the care of his lambs as if nothing could change his existence : the world beyond his horizon makes no sense.

 

This story, set in a realist style, but with a slight sense of suspense, appears as a transition. The more recent stories are set in an urban environment, or in a transitory space between country and small town, and have something new: a subtle sense of humour that subverts reality and received ideas, in lieu of the supernatural and the allegorical beforehand. This new satirical style makes a modern, much lighter and smoother reading, with varying tones.

 

“The Ninth Man” (第九个男人), for instance, is written as a fable, cum recurring couplet, which outlines the character of a woman forced by chance, or circumstances, to be free, more than choosing to be so. This is one of the many free women in Pema’s stories, but this freedom comes with a cost, and there is some faint bitterness, here, behind the lightness of tone.

 

A good example of Pema’s humouris “Urgyän’s Teeth” (乌金的牙齿), first published in a literary review in May 2011: this is the (autobiographical) story of a schoolboy whose best friend is recognized as a tülku, a “reborn lama”; after his death, his teeth have to be found to be put in a stupa, but there is some uncertainty as to which ones are the real ones…  Pema offers a gentle satire of popular religious creeds, bordering on blind faith, questioned through the innocent eyes of the schoolboy.

 

The last story translated from the Chinese in the “Neige” collection is “Tharlo” (《塔洛》), which has now acquired worldwide fame thanks to the film which has been adapted from it, and has received unanimous praise since its original screening at the Venice festival in August 2015.

 

“Tharlo” is another of the recent portraits by Pema of lonely shepherds confronted to a changing world where they have neither place nor recognized status. This story marks a transition in Pema Tseden’s work, being the first of his stories he has adapted for the screen. Until then, his short stories were part of his inner world, some kind of calm meditation, apart from the noisy furore of the world, including filmmaking.

 

His short stories meanwhile tend to concentrate more and more on subtle psychological analyses of individuals lost in the modern world while preserving ancient modes of thinking and behaving. He seems to be increasing the void in his stories, as in the best Chinese paintings.

 

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[1] Neige, seven short stories by Pema Tseden, Philippe Picquier 2012, pocket edition October 2016.

(three short stories translated from the Tibetan by Françoise Robin, four short stories translated from the Chinese by Brigitte Duzan)

[2] See, for example, Development and Urban Space in Contemporary Tibetan Literature, by Riika J. Virtanen, in : Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change, Lauran R. Hartley and Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani ed., Duke University Press 2008, p. 256.

[3] Pema himself has translated into Chinese the former three stories ; they were published in 2011 in a collection edited in China titled “The Minstrel’s Song” (《流浪歌手的梦》) : 人与狗(« Men and Dog) p. 42, 《岗》(« Snow ») p. 86, and 《寻访阿卡图巴》(“Akhu Thöpa’s Interview”) p. 112.

[4] In the sense of Elias Canetti’s comments on the Analects : what is important is not what Confucius said, but what he avoided saying. (“Confucius and his Conversations”).

 

 

万玛才旦短篇小说集2016年法译袖珍本前言修订版

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