Monday, December 8, 2008

tibetan mail runners

Unforgettable images fill Tibet: Through the Red Box, the beautiful, magical book by illustrator Peter Sis. Czech by birth, Sis now lives in the New York area. In the 1950's, his father Vladimir, a documentary filmmaker, was sent by the Czechoslovak government to teach filmmaking techniques in China. There he was given a crew of students and assigned to document the building of a highway to a remote 'province'. Only after a landslide separates him from most of his crew does he learn that the 'province' is in fact Tibet. By turns realistic, dreamlike, and mystical, the book melds Peter Sis' impressions of the trip with the travel diary that his father kept while in a Tibet that would soon no longer exist.

Early in the story, the elder Sis is wandering through a rhododendron forest when he suddenly hears bells that sound much like jingle bells. Then a boy dressed in red and carrying a pouch and a spear appears and, most fantastically, pulls from his pouch a letter from home addressed to the filmmaker. Tibet did not in fact have an organized postal system, relying instead on long-distance mail runners, who ran in relays, to deliver the mail. These carriers wore red clothing with bells attached to alert people of their approach and carried a spear to defend themselves from wild animals or brigands. In Tibet: Through the Red Box, the mail runner who appears with a letter from Prague is just the start of an enchanting, multilayered story which is superbly illustrated by Peter Sis.