The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen is a holy book, one of those books you could read again and again, but probably won’t. It was reprinted as a Vintage Classic for a new generation of readers. I got called me a book snob, online. It irked me, at first. Readings what I do. I’m one of the clichéd, if I’ve nothing to read, I’ll read the ingredients of the sauce bottle kinda guy. I even read poetry, but I don’t put it on my chips very often. But honestly, I’m a book snob. I give myself reasons. Starting with because I’m getting older and there are only so many books I can read. Usually, I forget books as soon as I read them, but The Snow Leopard leaves an imprint of something remembered. There’s something pure and wise in the writing. George Orwell suggested good writing was like looking through a pane of glass. Great writing holds up a mirror to the soul.
The Zen expression of Matthiessen’s beloved second wife ‘D’ ‘No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place’ is matched by the words of his transcribed diary of a journey outward and inward that rings true and pure.
‘Expect nothing,’ Matthiessen’s guru, Eldo Rosh,i had warned him on the day he left. He had also held his wife’s left hand and Matthiessen had held her right hand as she died and they chanted and renewed their Buddhist vows.
Matthiessen’s quest is renewal and if fate brings it, to see the fabled snow leopard, which only two Westerners had seen (until tens of millions viewed it on David Atttenborough’s Planet Earth, sipping tea and letting Digestive crumbs settle on the cushion, but that’s a different story).
Matthiessen carries his ego and his fate with him as a tortoise carries its shell. Roshi’s advice to be ‘light, light, light’ was for both the inner and outer journey. The great sins for his Sherpas, carriers and guides on his journey Westward, Nothward and up At Crystal Mountain was ‘do not pick wild flowers and do not threaten children’. I like these dictums.
‘The sherpas are of the famous mountain tribe of north-east Nepal, near Namche Bazzar, whose men accompany the ascents of the great peaks: they are Buddhist herders who have come down in recent centuries out of eastern Tibet—sherpa is a Tibetan word for ‘easterner’…
Porters are mostly local men of uncertain occupation and unsteadfast habit, notorious for giving trouble’.
GS, his European travelling companion, sets out on a different goal, to study the autumnal rutting habit of the Bharal, Himalayan blue sheep, to determine whether they were archetypal ‘strange sheep’ or goat in the Land of Dolopo. All but closed to Westerners. With the coming snows and the clock ticking there is a limited window of opportunity in which GS the zoologist and Matthiessen, the biologist, are both primed as much for failure as success. They are an odd couple, who in their different ways shun human company. Yet, they seek the distant companionship and understanding of each other. A different kind of love.
They are short of money and their time window is dictated by heavy snow and the whims of district officials and police. And Matthiesen is 56 years old and does not have the mountain lungs of the porters or sherpas. Physically, he’s not up to it. He’s travelling heavy, rather than light. After over a week of walking in heavy rain they’ve not got as far as they hoped. Everything takes longer.
‘All the way to heaven is heaven,’ as Saint Catherine of Sienna observed after three years of silence. As Mathiessen and his travelling companions gets away from civilization there are moments of grace.
But the obverse of this, all the way to hell is hell, as they come down, literally and metaphysically.
‘My knees and feet and back are sore, and all my gear is wet. I wear my last dry socks upside down so that the hole in the heal sits on top of my foot; these underpants ripped, must be worn backwards.’
We know, of course, Matthiessen’s quest to see and experience close contact with the snow leopard is doomed, but more cherished spiritual attainment, is putting his battered life in order. He promised his son he’d be home soon, home for Halloween. He knew it was a lie. But needs must.
Needs always must. Unless you are the Rimpoche, ‘precious one’ and High Lama of Shay, Crystal Monastery. Sitting on his stone terrace facing the Crystal Mountain. Matthiessen hadn’t recognised him when they first met, seeing only a crippled old monk curing clothes in some awful goat-brain mixture. He’s here the second time by invitation. Served sun-dried green yak cheese in a coarse powder, with tsampa and buttered tea, called so-cha served in blue china cups in the mountain sunshine by Takla, the acolyte of Rimpoche. It’s heaven.
Matthiessen politely enquires about the Rimpoche’s isolation, especially with his twisted legs and arthritic bones which make it difficult of the High Lama to get about.
The High Lama, laughs, infectiously.
‘Of course I am happy here. It’s wonderful. Especially when I have no choice.’
The lesson Matthiessen takes from his meeting is acceptance.
Have you seen the snow leopard?
No! Isn’t is wonderful.
But as Matthiessen comes back down to earth, it isn’t so wonderful. All the way to heaven is heaven. All the way to hell is hell. Read on – and ponder.