The Book of Bod Pa
With Het boek van Bod Pa Quintana has written both a boy’s adventure book and a philosophical adolescent novel. It is a broadly-based story set among a tribe of nomads on the steppes of Central Asia, at a time when sword fighters whose life’s work was the defence of their honour still roamed the land. One of them is Bod Pa, a blind, dipsomaniac dwarf, scarred by life but never beaten in battle. He becomes the teacher of the son of a friendly tribal chief. This boy has a broken leg that will not heal and he uses his infirmity as an excuse to evade his responsibilities, scared of death and even more scared of life. From Bod Pa he learns to have the guts to take to the road, and that it is better ‘to have dents in your armour than to know nothing of the battle.’
Bod Pa constantly provokes his pupil. His behaviour is unpredictable, he makes unpleasant jokes and gives enigmatic orders. While man and boy ride on horseback over the endless plains, they experience the ‘devastating loneliness’ of nature and conduct ponderous conversations with one another. These conversations, in which the boy questions his travelling companion about death and the meaning of life, form the beating heart of the story. Bod Pa’s answers are rarely direct and are often packaged as aphorisms: ‘Fame is a fine suit that others dress you in.’ The na?eve certainty with which some of these words of wisdom are put forward will probably caused some raised eyebrows among adults. Yet for young adults, who are after all keenly preoccupied with issues of human existence, this is precisely what makes Quintana such an excellent writer.
The story is compellingly written, original and precise in its choice of words, and brilliant in the impassioned passages describing the magnificence of nature. However, Quintana’s uniqueness lies primarily in the way in which he depicts the ‘loner’, with understanding, compassion and respect. In this initiation story the young hero is given two choices: he can become either a family man or a wanderer. How his future turns out is left open. In any event he rejects the third possibility: not to make a choice at all and to remain a boy.