Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

George Crane, author of “Bones of the Master”

George Crane Athens May 2010


One of his famous sayings is the following: “ a man without a story to tell would not be a human being; we live, dream and eat by stories making up our soul and as we go along, whether on large or tiny journeys, we look out always for something, may it be a road sign or a poem.”

George Crane Athens Nov.’ 2006

Vilka Tzouras, film maker speaking to George Crane about his book.

The book ‘Bones of the Master’ is more than a mere journey for it brings together literature and poetry, something usually not published as poetry does not count so much as does a novel. Still George Crane has published such an account and this against all odds.

In the book he describes almost like an autobiography how he relates to the Buddhist monk Tsung Tsai who had to flee Mongolia and China in the late fifties.

The novel provides many insights into what happened in China then, before the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the cultural revolution, and what was the cause for the Monk to flee. George Crane points out very emphatically that in the Fifties nearly 50 to 70 million people died. This was partly due to starvation after an ill conceived agricultural experiment failed miserably. It was proposed to Mao Tse-Tsung by a Russian advisor who had already a bad record back home. Moreover soldiers and everything linked to the state came down hard on people of different ideas about life, different to the imposed ideology cultivated around Mao Tse-Tsung. It also meant everything made of iron was melted down for the needs to produce weapons increased tremendously. Consequently people were left without any cooking utensils.

The novel can be perceived as well as a contrast between a Western writer steeped in the tradition of the Enlightenment and driven by the inquisitiveness of a rational mind while not minding a good and passionate life with wine and women, and there a monk who despite his age had great wisdom derived from old traditions known by Buddhist monks. He practices everything from healing by listening to acupuncture. Most revealing was his reactions to a man suffering from gangrene in the leg with apparent no other solution but amputation. The monk shouted all you know in the West is "cut, cut; no, me monk know different method". And he applied a special cream to extract out of the leg the poison.

George got to know the healing powers of Tsung Tsai shortly after they met due to a terrible ice storm. It had knocked down not only branches but entire trees. The road had to be cleared. There needed to be cut a way through the mess if to be reconnected to the outside world. When George started with his chain saw, suddenly there appeared this monk who with a hand saw moved swiftly and fast. George had problems to keep up but after such hard work they had become not only neighbors but started already out on their road to friendship. He noticed immediately that Tsung Tsai was knowledgable in all sorts of medical practices not known in the West. A first proof he got when he informed the monk about a friend who suffered after a long and healthy life suddenly under cancer. Tsung Tsai agreed to come along and take a look. When he saw the man he turned to George and said nothing can be done, it is too late, but it is possible to let his friend live the rest of his life without pain. They agreed. The friend died two weeks later but till then he was free of pain.

These literary reflections into life saving insights transforms the novel into a dialogue between two different cultures: the one prevailing in the United States and the one conveyed by a Buddhist monk from China, Mongolia to be precise. Listening to this dialogue as they begin to journey together, it brings out suddenly such acute awareness that another appreciation of a healthy and meaningful life begins to underline many important sentences spoken often not in good English, but in the broken equally poetic juxtaposition of a monk saying "me monk, not jeep!".

George Crane has the amazing distance to let empathy feel your way into the thoughts and life of the other without ever over identifying himself with the monk. He stays always true to himself: a skeptical writer who cannot have the clear mind the monk demands of him because there is something not to be eradicated from his mind, namely the desire for love and more concretely for sex with any woman as long as she speaks not only to the body but equally to the mind. George Crane never forgets throughout that amazing journey where he comes from and what is to him a zeal of life while at the same time he shows that honoring the tradition of the other is more than agreement or mutual respect. By putting up a small Buddha statue himself he shows to the monk in such way that he honors his beliefs. The monk responds to such gesture with a modest but emphatic statement: "now Buddha is happy!"

The journey begins when the monk and George decide to return to the place where the monk had to flee from. He did so by walking over one year from Mongolia to Hong Kong. This amazing journey begins already when the monk begins to recapitulate his flight. George Crane enriches that account by tracing with his fingers the route the monk took on a map laid out in front of them and at every bend of the road, or when he had to hide from the soldiers, his imagination becomes that of someone who must have been there more than a witness but as someone who participated as if the very shadow of the monk himself. There is this scene when the monk dares to try to escape by jumping with others on a freight train about to enter a series of tunnels. After many bends no one of those trying to escape safe but one mother and her child are left on the roof top of the freight car. The monk holds onto her arms until she too can no longer muster any strength. He too falls into the river below, his fingers having grown cold and weak to hold on. Amazing is all the more so that he survives. "Me monk, Buddha will not let me die as I am the only one left of all the other monks, so must find the grave of my master!" That then defines his mission and explains the wish to return despite that escape lasting one year before he reaches Hong Kong and from there the flight to the United States where he ends up living up the mountain where George Crane moved in nearby just one day before the ice rain broke loose.

It is most amazing how the two set out to retrace those tracks themselves by returning to Mongolia and once there begin the search for the cave where the Master had stayed in last. As in all religions the ritual of the final burial is of great importance. It is the wish to give the soul of the man a lasting rest by ensuring a proper burial. That is the wish of the monk. George Crane accompanies him in that mission and thereby enters another world.

While waiting for the visas and proper contacts to find the best guides, they spend some time in a tiny hut of Fang-fang. As delicate is the erotic tension between her and George Crane, they remain separated by the monk who sleeps in between them. There is an unspoken difference between that respectful silence of erotic needs and poetic words being spoken to test them against the wind howling over the roof tops of the village. It is here that another meaning of ‘sand and stones forming a pattern once calmness prevails’ manifests itself: in the form of simple grave sites where Tsung Tsai honors as well his family. Out of such a pattern emerges a novel that touches upon the fibers of humanity, a novel showing the unbelievable capacity to travel enormous distances with the other provided there is some truth to such life.

Here then an exert from that novel, more a descriptive lyrical sing-song just like the monks murmurs during meditation.

Hatto Fischer Athens 23.3.2007

George Crane in the office of POIEIN KAI PRATTEIN

Exert from “Bones of the Master – A Journey to Secret Mongolia”:

(with permission of the author)

The cemetery was a half mile west of the village, bonded to the south by a dike. The graves were unmarked mounds of sand and stone. I followed Tsung Tsai. He pointed: “Mama, my two brothers are here.” He bent and placed small pieces of pancakes from our breakfast on each grave. He took a handful of incense sticks that Fang-fang had given him as we left the house. I stood with my parka unzipped and held outstretched, trying to shelter him from the wind. He tried again and again to light them, but it was no use: the wind was too strong.

“Just forget,” he said, and stuck a few on each grave. His eyes closed and his lips moved.

Next, he went to the graves of his father and grandfather and repeated the ceremony. When he finished, he bit his thumb and sobbed, finally giving himself over to grief – for his lost family, his lost world.

I looked down at the rough mound that was his father’s grave. I felt nothing. No reincarnated souls. No hungry ghosts. Another poet whose bones refused to turn to dust.

Yellow clouds trundled across the mountains. A lone bicyclist pedaled atop the dike, silhouetted against the sky. The wind stung my cheeks, turning my eyes to slits. It wipped Tsung Tsai’s robes up around his shins, and I saw his ankles were bare above his sagging socks. He buttoned the green army greatcoat that Fang-fang has insisted he wear that day. He pulled his cap down over his ears. I watched from a distance, flapping my arms in a futile effort to stay warm, while he walked clockwise around the cemetery’s perimeter chanting mantras, pacifying mummies, comforting the living and the dead.

When he returned to the house he was exhausted, wracked by that dry cough. He downed a bottle of curing pills and collapsed on the warm k’ang, sleeping through the rest of the afternoon. Fang-fang lit the coal stove for him. I wrote and oiled my boots. When Tsung Tsai woke, his color was better and his appetite fierce. For dinner, Fang-fang prepared a special soup of lotus root with fresh noodles: black smoky-tasting fungus; pale buttery mushrooms; and purple heart-shaped peppers, the size of thimbles and scalding hot.

That night, I put my brass pocket Buddha up on a chest and Tsung Tsai clapped.

“Wonderful! So good you have. Good evening, Buddha.”

We sat next to the coal stove in the candlelight and Tsung Tsai asked me to translate the poem that had come to him in sleep. I was very much aware of Fang-fang gazing at us silently as we worked. When we were done, I was happy. The wind swept over the house, and Tsung Tsai curled himself on the k’ang, his cough quiet, and went to sleep. I stayed by the stove, fiddling with the poem.

“Can you read me?” Fang-fang asked, and I did, reading the lines over until their cadence fell into place and the words seemed right.

Alas, white skull
sad fellow traveler,
who are you?
Who knows your name?
How long ago did you leave your country?
When you disappeared,
did your family,
weeping blood,
sprinkle the stones with their tears?
Now in this gloomy place,
in a border world you live,
a shade in shadows,
a vague,
a crippled spirit.
Water flows and wind howls.
Sad and pitiful soul,
this I say to you:
when thirsty,
drink dew and fog and rain,
when hungry,
swallow wind and sand and mud.

She closed her eyes and threw her head back as I read.
“Sad,” she said when I had finished.
There was a long pause. We regarded each other in the candlelight.
“Coal?” she asked.
I shook my head, touched by her generosity.
“Sleeping now?”
She wet her fingers and pinched the candle wicks. With rustlings and exhalations of warm breath we took our places under heaps of bedding on opposite sides of Tsung Tsai, who slept quietly on. The wind roared over the village. The room was as dark as a tomb. When I closed my eyes I could see the summit of Crow Pull Mountain, poking into the a black sky. Ghosts rose from the graves, leaned forward, and ate the wind. It was a very long time before I fell asleep.

^ Top

« Svetlana Dicheva | Marcel Reich-Ranicki - the pope of German literature »