Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri’s Mission to Tibet by Trent Pomplun. New York: Oxford University Press, November 11, 2009. Hardcover. 320 p. $29.95.
“Straw men in much European and American literature, both Catholic and anti-Catholic, members of the Society of Jesus have enjoyed a long run as horders, fanatics, meddlers, and murderers.…There has hardly been a corpus so literary in its vitriol as that directed against the Society of Jesus” (except perhaps against HPB). This is just one of the hurdles to be overcome by anyone writing about the work of the Jesuits says Trent Pomplun in his study of the life of Ippolito Desideri, S.J. (1684-1733), one of the first Westerners to reach Lhasa. During his stay in Tibet from 1717 to 1721, he learnt the language and translated primers on Christian doctrine written by him into Tibetan. HPB did not think much of him, citing him by name along with other missionaries whose writings “teem with the greatest absurdities.…And when could have been found any better opportunity to ventilate their monkish ill-humor and vindictiveness than in the matter of Tibet, the very land of mystery, mysticism and seclusion?” (“Reincarnation in Tibet,” Theos., March 1882, BCW 4:10.) Desideri’s writings lay forgotten till the 1870s, his narrative of his journey to Tibet being published in English in 1937. Pomplun’s book presents an informative commentary on Desideri’s travels through the land of mystery, allowing a glimpse into a turbulent period in Tibetan history. An interesting sidelight for readers of Blavatsky is the details it provides on the conflict between the Ningmapas and Gulukpas, now glossed over.