‘Seven Years in Tibet’; or ‘Siben Jahre in Tibet. Mein Leben am Hofe des Dalai Lama’ in its original German edition, is the autobiographical adventures of Austrian explorer Heinrich Harrer, between 1944 and 1950. The story is probably best known for the 1997 film adaptation starring Brad Pitt as Harrer, although this is certainly a romanticisation of the real protagonist’s adventures in the land of the Dalai Lama.
By all accounts Heinrich Harrer was a romantic and a dreamer, enthused by the earlier twentieth century pre-occupation with all things oriental; a trend which inculcated many elements of Western culture from literature and art to popular fringe religious movements such as Theosophy. In the steadily darkening years of the 1920s and 1930s, Harrer left Europe in search of escapist fantasy – looking for a world to act as an antidote to the darkness of economic chaos, fascism and the hectic, skin deep glamour of the modern world.
In the twenty-first century Tibet is a well known location and a magnet for students, holiday makers and adventure seekers of all varieties. In the 1930s it was virtually unknown, and it was only the Chinese invasion of 1950 that really put Tibet on the map. Dreamers such as Harrer in the 1930s tended to gravitate towards India, and that is where the author found himself when war broke out between Britain and Germany in 1939. As an ‘enemy alien’ in British ruled colonial India, Harrer found himself consigned to an internment camp for citizens of dubious loyalty, even though he himself was a fervent anti-nazi. The regime at the camp was evidently fairly slack, as Harrer very soon escaped his confinement in the company of his friend Peter Aufschnaiter and trekked off into the mountains.
Harrer’s time in Tibet should certainly not be mistaken for a Himalayan holiday. His gritty prose paints a picture of 1940s Tibet which is as prosaic as it is tinged with nostalgia. Harrer himself ended up in Tibet through a happy accident; or through a series of unfortunate events, depending on the perspective.
In 1944 the two Austrians drifted in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet; a place that could not have been contrasted more strongly than the glitz and ferocious speed of modern Europe and America. Harrer quickly became known in Lhasa, no doubt in part due to the conspicuous absence of other westerners in the city; and plied his trade as a translator, medic, mountain guide and engineer for the next seven years, in that time making many strong friendships, including with the Dalai Lama.
Seven Years in Tibet is an escapist, holiday read of the first order; providing a fascinating window on a world which is now virtually extinct. Like other areas in the People’s Republic of China, Lhasa has been dragged – often kicking and screaming – along an idiosyncratic route to modernisation; a road from which there is no easy route back to the certainties of the past. Tibetans and westerners alike should read this heroic, sometimes pompous and always humbling autobiography; and pause for breath for a moment as they do so, taking heed of what they have lost – and where they might be heading.
The post was contributed by lovereading.co.uk