A landmark in travel writing, this is the incredible true story of Heinrich Harrer's escape across the Himalayas to Tibet, set against the backdrop of the Second World War. Heinrich Harrer, already one of the greatest mountaineers of his time, was climbing in the Himalayas when war broke out in Europe. He was imprisoned by the British in India but ...
A landmark in travel writing, this is the incredible true story of Heinrich Harrer's escape across the Himalayas to Tibet, set against the backdrop of the Second World War. Heinrich Harrer, already one of the greatest mountaineers of his time, was climbing in the Himalayas when war broke out in Europe. He was imprisoned by the British in India but succeeded in escaping and fled to Tibet. Settling in Lhasa, the Forbidden City, where he became a friend and tutor to the Dalai Lama, Heinrich Harrer spent seven years gaining a more profound understanding of Tibet and the Tibetans than any Westerner before him. More recently made into a film starring Brad Pitt, Seven Years in Tibet is a stunning story of incredible courage and self-reliance by one of the twentieth century's best travel writers.
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Heinrich Harrer has been described, interviewed, made into a film character and has publicized himself in so many ways that it may be difficult to fully understand the importance and value of his experience in Tibet during the years preceeding the Chinese invasion of this peaceful country. SY in T is the core work of his long and adeventurous existance and he would deserve to be remembered even if in his 93 year long trek through life he had written only this book. At the beginning of WWII (1943) a German-Austrian mountaneering expedition to the Himalaya had to turn back because of bad weather and all the participants beeing in India (British at those times) were considered POW and interned in a camp at Dehra Dun. Harrer, during the first two years of prison, attempts a few unsuccessfull escapes but in the mean time reads many books on Tibet in the POW camp library. He figures out that the only way to obtain freedom is to travel through Tibet to reach Japanese lines. Finally one escape attempt goes right and Harrer together with others manages to cross the Indo-Tibetan border. Various companions turn back or get sick, so at the end he is accompanied only by Peter Aufschnaider a though fellow austrian thirteen years his senior. In two years with many drawbacks they proceed through the hostile Tibetan plateau, crossing passes in winter and hiding and lying to the Tibetan authorities they encounter on the way.Tibet a those times was completely xenophobic and expecially so Lhasa, the "Forbidden City", that becomes the goal of the two refugees. The desire to reach Lhasa for Harrer stems also from his childhood reading of Sven Hadin's failed tentatives to enter the misterious Dalai Lama's home. When the two companions finally cross the city gates they are convinced they will be sent back to India, instead, slowly, Tibetan society looks to them with interest and curiosity. They are adimired for their incredible achievement and their modesty and unpretentiousness favourably impresses all. Showing their many technical talents: plumbing, agricultural expertise, urban planification and map drawing, they are employed by the government and are received by the highest nobility including the Dalai Lama's family. Even the young Dalai Lama himself requests Harrer's talents for his tutoring and a beautiful friendship sparks up during geography lessons and the construction of a home made cinema. But five years have gone by and the historical situation has deeply changed, the Chinese are carrying out their much planned invasion of Tibet. WWII is over and in 1950-51 there is no danger for expatriates returning to Europe. Harrer decides to leave Tibet, while Aufschnaider takes the chance of staying. SY in Tibet is first of all an adventure book, built like a greek tragedy: we have a hero (Harrer) and his silent companion (Aufschnaider) (remember Orestes and Pilades in the Eumenides?) that through a thousand adventures finally reach the land of their dream, which is like a home for them, where they live and work happily until Destiny decides to interrupt ther idyllium. For this reason I believe the book has a great appeal for young people and probably it is best read during the adolescence when "formation novels" make a deep impact. Secondly SY in T is a book of memories, because having been written at distance from the experiences it posesses a mythical imprint. This aspect of Harrer's poetics is more evident in "Return to Tibet" published thrity years later in 1983. This particular characteristic makes the book pleasant also for adults, that reading it live anew their youthful experiences when all life was an adventure and a promise. Thirdly Harrer's seminal work is a book of cultural value because it is a detailed description of Tibetan costumes, habits, dressses, food, personal relationships and all aspects of this feudal society that still in the 1940-50's posessed strongly medieval characteristics. There are a plethora of books written on that happy period of Tibetan "freedom" and I think of those by Richardson and Tucci, just to mention a few, but none of them was written from the "inside" of Tibetan society like SY in Tibet. All these works have detailed descriptions of ethnical features but no one conveys that lightness, joy of life and serenity evident in Harrer's book. "We belonged", the Author affirms at one point and I think this is the most important point that elevates this book above others. Contrarily to what others have said, I found no patronizing outlook of the European that comes in contact with other civilizations, instead a sentiment of empathy is evident and a non judgemental attitude (buddhist?) runs through the narration. The language is very simple and the english translation makes it even more so. The reading runs along without pauses towards the final climax or anti-climax as one wants. Indipendently from some defects, this book is a real joy to read and represent a mile stone of European travel writing of the 1900's.
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