IN KEN MITCHELL's fourth novel, Stones of the Dalai Lama (GreyStone/Douglas & McIntyre, 328 pages, $14.95 paper), the American university professor Bob Harlow ends a year's sabbatical in China with a trip to Tibet, where he takes some mani stones - traditional engraved funeral markers - as souvenirs from the holy place known as the Place of the Dead. Harlow's thoughtless sacrilege seems to precipitate a torrent of ill fortune, including the theft of money, the loss of his job, and a series of terrible and terrifying accidents that culminates in the death of his estranged son.
Convinced that the only way to stave off further misfortune is to return the stones, Harlow sets off for Tibet with an unusual companion, the uneducated, foul-mouthed, bigoted Vern Cugnet. Their journey, during which they circumvent the bureaucracies of China, India, and Nepal in order to sneak into Tibet, mixes mysticism with farce as they deal with stupid but persistent border guards, manic hermits, and strange demonic forces. Along the way, they have an audience with the Dalai Lama, who gives Harlow some good advice that enables him to complete his self-imposed mission and return home a better and wiser man.
Mitchell writes with a kind of avuncular jolliness that has its attraction and also goes some way towards leavening the deliberate pacing and uneasy diction of the novel. Furthermore, the ideas about responsibility and self-awareness that underpin the novel are worth thinking about, so that I read Stones of the Dalai Lama at a sitting on a fine afternoon, and did not feel I had wasted my time.