Undoubtedly made famous by the film of the same name starring Brad Pitt, Seven Years in Tibet, as is usually the case, is a better book. The story is visually stunning on screen, but the hardships and troubles Heinrich Harrer and his partner experience getting to and surviving in the Himalayan kingdom are revealed in more affective and detailed fashion on the page. Having almost a fictional feel due to larger-than-life size of the story, Harrer’s autobiography of his transition from prisoner in India to adviser to the Dali Lama makes for amazing reading.
Working as an Austrian mountaineer at the outbreak of Word War II, Harrer was suddenly “the enemy” in British occupied India as Germany attacked in Europe. Placed in an internment camp at the base of the Himalayas, Harrer bided his time and eventually escaped along with Peter Aufschnaiter. Their escape did not immediately reap benefits, however. The greatest mountain range in the world greeting them, the pair’s plight through the Himalayas tested every bit of integrity and will to survive they possessed, and is a great travelogue by itself for anyone interested in survival stories of the range. Staggering into the Shangri-la kingdom in the Tibetan plateau months later, suffering the long-term effects of altitude sickness as well as bone and nerve issues, they hoped life would get better. Learning of the strange white men who’d found their way into his land, the Dali Lama, then just a boy, opened communication with the duo, and was soon absorbing every ounce of knowledge they had of the outside world. The rest history, it’s this relationship, and the titular seven years the two spent in Tibet that are the truly poignant side of the tale.
Transcending the religious and political bounds which would try to engulf the scenario, Seven Years in Tibet is fundamentally a human account. Seeking simply to survive and desiring knowledge of the world outside their mountain realm, Harrer, Aufschnaiter, and the Dali Lama are easy to relate to, making for the most interesting of historical reading. The Chinese breathing down the neck of Lhasa and Germans in the cross-hairs India, not to mention the ideological differences inherent to the background of the people involved, the situation exudes tension, a tension that face to face communication between Harrer and the Dali Lama diffuses with simple human interest. Each, in fact, becoming a tutor to the other, the exchange of knowledge is a testament to the virtues of humanity surpassing the tremors of war and conflict on their respective doorsteps.
Along with the human side of the experience, Harrer likewise goes into wonderfully descriptive detail regarding the landscape, customs, and setting of Tibetan life. Though the book is predominantly set in the capital, Lhasa—a hive of life in itself, Harrer also details their plight through the mountains in wonderful clarity. The peaks and conditions, nomads and soldiers, who help or hurt their cross-country trek come to life under his watchful eyes and attentive pen. These descriptions alone make the book well worth reading.
In the end, Seven Years in Tibet is the vividly recollected story of one man’s escape from captivity and the friendship with the Dali Lama which resulted. The Himalayas the setting and Tibet the cultural backdrop, Harrer’s experiences are as exotic as can be for a Westerner and are related to the reader in affecting terms. Authorial license (i.e. occasionally manipulating dialogue as needed to create a smoother narrative) perhaps the only potential drawback, the book is otherwise a powerful indication of the humanity’s virtues in the face of adversity and war.