Sometimes a really good novel puts the reader in a dilemma: While you want to fly on to the end, you also wish to prolong the delicious suspense and savor every word, rolling it on your tongue as you would a fine wine.
Land of Water and Milk, by young writer Fan Wen, published by the People's Literature Publishing House this January, is just such a work.
Although the author clearly tells you the ending in the second chapter, you cannot but remain helplessly caught up in the story through 10 fat chapters plus a lengthy Last Supper.
A Lai once said: "Moving stories are always more likely to take place where different cultures converge."
Fan's story takes place in just such a setting.
What makes his book even more compelling is the fierce struggle between people holding different beliefs, and the slowly won realization that only through mutual respect can people coexist in harmony in such a harsh natural setting.
The author demonstrates a superb skill in weaving an incredibly complicated net of intertwining storylines.
The novel begins in the early 1900s with two French missionaries standing in a valley, admiring the grand snow-capped mountains before them, which they thought would soon be bathed in God's glorious light.
They studied Tibetan Buddhism and even built a church within the territory of a Buddhist lamasery. But their arrogance in attempting to drive out all native religions infuriated the local people, who burned their church and killed one of the missionaries.
When the other missionary brought back a troop of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government soldiers, a major slaughter began. The missionary was so ashamed seeing a young girl and a flock of innocent sheep trembling in front of him, that he gave up what the cannons had conquered and led his followers to the eastern side of the Lancang River to build a new church.
At this point, the story moves to the end of the 20th century, when people discover some precious documents left in the church by the early missionaries.
Then the author carries his readers through a number of scenes, moving first back to the 1910s then jumping to the 1980s. The grand story ends in the 1950s, when the local people all get their share of land and the missionaries are forced to leave.
"I'm trying something new in the narration," explained Fan. "The book is like an elegy and I want to conclude it in the 1950s, when the region's history took a dramatic and decisive turn."
But what lays buried beneath this historical context is the unique sense of time of the Tibetan people.
Outsiders are often amazed to hear local people talking about prehistoric events as if they took place only yesterday. Then they might refer to recent happenings as if they had happened long ago.
With the people living in a grand valley where a landslide could sweep an entire mountain ridge and a village into the river overnight, it is no wonder that the modern sense of time doesn't matter much to them, as their main concern is making out a living with their own hands and sweat.
What's more, Tibetan Buddhism holds that all forms of life live in a cycle of reincarnation. What you are today is a result of what you were in a previous life.
Setting up a similar cyclic plot, Fan turns his novel into a timeless epic.
Long after you finish this book, it still lingers on in your mind and propells you to ponder the relations among its intertwining themes or storylines.
It appears that at least three pairs of adversaries serve as central plot lines for the story.
The first pair involves the Tibetan chieftain Yegong Dunzhug Jiacog and Cering Dawa, the leader of another Tibetan tribe.
The two families' centuries-old feud ends in the 1970s, when 14-year-old Yegong Duxi, grandson of Dunzhug Jiacog, sets out alone to kill Cering Dawa. Yet he is saved from the claws of a huge bear by a dying lama, who turns out to be his very enemy.
What's more, the once ruthless killer Cering Dawa voluntarily gives up his life, thereby putting an end to the endless family feud.
As for Yegong Duxi, he eventually falls in love with and marries a Naxi girl in the 1980s, which brings to its culmination another theme of the story: the love and wars between the Tibetan and Naxi people.
The first clash between them is sparked by the fatal love of Yegong Dunzhug Jiacog's elder son and a niece of He Wanxiang, the leader of the Naxi people.
Without hope of getting married, the two commit suicide after singing and dancing in a secret alpine pasture, following a long tradition of the Naxi people.
This incident drives the Naxi people from the cultivated western bank of the Lancang River to the east bank, where they have to start all over again from scratch and endure famine in the process.
But the diligent Naxi people are soon producing pure white salt and selling more than the Tibetan chieftain whose salt doesn't taste as good.
This triggers a second war which ends with the finding of the Soul Boy of the Fifth Raojong Living Buddha, the supreme spiritual leader of the Tibetan people in the valley. When he passes away, the wise Living Buddha chooses to be reborn in the family of He Agui, the Dongba shaman, or spiritual guide, of the Naxi people.
Religion looks after everything
If the second storyline already sounds complicated enough, the third and most significant one, into which the author pours the bulk of his energy, makes the greatest demands on the reader: the relationship between the foreign missionaries and the local people.
When the two French missionaries want to build the first Catholic church in Tibet, they resort to trickery: By claiming they only need a piece of land the size of a cow's skin, they gain the permission of the lamasery.
They wet a cow skin and cut it into one long, thin continuous strand. With this, they enclose a huge expanse of land. This becomes the main reason for a war against the church in the early 1900s.
But in the late 1980s, a young man named Andord believes he has been summoned by God.
Both his great-grandfather and father were killed during clashes between the local people and the church.
Local government officials send the young man to Beijing to study Catholic theology. Soon he returns to the valley to work as a Father.
When he visits the Sixth Raojong Living Buddha, the reincarnation of the Fifth Raojong Living Buddha, Andord does not engage in heated debate about the superiority of Catholicism over Tibetan Buddhism, as his two French predecessors had done nearly a century earlier.
"I have not come to debate," says Andord. "I hope we will never argue with or hate one another. We only want to preach our religion and won't harm yours."
A distant response to this message of peace and an explanation of the book's title, the Fifth Raojong Living Buddha remarks in another chapter: "Although butter won't melt with tea, we Tibetans have a special container to mix buttered tea... Religion looks after all things."
Aside from the clashes between religious leaders, the clash of Catholicism with local people's beliefs is also highlighted in the book.
Peter, the first Tibetan believer baptized by the French missionaries, is killed in the early 1900s.
His great-grand-son, 4-year-old Royce, is recognized as the Soul Boy of a Living Buddha in neighboring Yunnan Province in the 1990s.
When the boy's deeply worried father seeks guidance from Andord, the young priest is silent. Alone in the chapel, he confers with God: "Oh mighty Lord, this is no longer the time to uphold your glories through debate and battle.
"In the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Islamists and Judaists are still fighting each other with stones, tear gas and even lethal weapons.
"But here in Tibet, we need a peaceful life. Oh, benevolent Lord, I shall give up. One of your lambs is to be cultured by them into a Living Buddha, a deity revered by people of another religion.
"I hope this shall also be your honor."
Fan is able to present his diversified characters in their own languages. You hear the Living Buddha talking with great wisdom and unique metaphors; the missionaries calmly preaching when their church was about to be burned.
Reading this book, one no longer feels like a transient tourist on the mysterious plateau, but feels, rather, like a worshipper of the many deities that thrive in this land of devoted Tibetan people.
The only thing lacking in the novel is a list of characters and their relationships, which would make it easier for the reader to follow the complex, interwoven storylines.
But even without it, the reader can still figure his or her way through with a little brain-work, which is part of the great fun in reading this book.
What's more, in an increasingly uniform global world, it is always delightful to experience the spiritual lives of different peoples through an eloquent author.
(China Daily June 9, 2004)