Review of “The Godfather of Kathmandu”

The Godfather of Kathmandu (Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series #4) The Godfather of Kathmandu (Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series #4) by John Burdett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was another serendipitous library find. I don’t read a lot of mystery novels, but I do like the occasional mystery set in an unfamiliar culture or environment or time. This goes some way to explaining why The Name of the Rose is one of my all-time favorite novels. A good mystery novel always contains some wisdom; enough wisdom, and it crosses that invisible line between genre novel and “literature”.

This book compares well with books from Tony Hillerman, John Straley and Dana Stabenow. All of these authors write books in which the environment itself is arguably the most important character. While it may be a stretch to call “The Godfather of Kathmandu” literature, it certainly contains wonderful environments, odd and fascinating characters, some adventure… and yes, some wisdom. In John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep stories, Thailand is the setting, and Buddhism is the soundtrack. In this latest installment, our hero spends much of his time in Nepal, and is exposed to a rather harrowing version of Tibetan Buddhism.

The very un-Western reactions and aspirations of the characters provides a lot of what interested me in this book. I have an interest in Buddhism, and still I was surprised again by just how foreign and strange a Buddhist outlook can be. Buddhism somehow is at once profoundly compassionate and shockingly impersonal; I find myself unable to reconcile these apparent opposites. The kind of Buddhism that believes in reincarnation teaches that change takes many lifetimes, thousands of lifetimes – this point of view forces a kind of patience that strikes a Western mind as a kind of unforgivable passivity. I admire this strong belief in patience – lack of patience and an attraction to shortcuts may be the Western character flaw that dooms us all, finally. On the other hand, when confronted by the acceptance of suffering, my reaction is somewhat like Joseph Campbell’s when he traveled to India: repulsion. Westerners have such a strong belief in action. While reading this book, I somewhat strangely found myself admiring the heart-on-sleeve, undisciplined emotionalism of a “Western” reaction when compared to the detachment taught by Buddhism.

This book meanders somewhat: our hero seems to spend more time visiting shrines, smoking pot, or getting something to eat than he does pushing the plot forward. And yet, I liked the overall effect. In a way, the background of this mystery novel steps in front of the foreground action, which suited me just fine, since the descriptions of Bangkok and Kathmandu, and the discussions of Buddhist ideas and practices, turned out to be much of what made this book so enjoyable.

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~ by untidymusings on July 17, 2010.

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