The reader, who travels with Peter Matthiessen through his powerful prose on his harrowing trek through some of the harshest terrain on earth, is not disappointed. However, The Snow Leopard is more. To follow this scientific expedition in order to study the rutting behavior of the blue sheep, and to delight in the detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of Nepal that most readers will never see, justifies the slow intense read that this book deserves. However, The Snow Leopard is more. Matthiessen, with his alluring alliterations and spot on similes, takes the reader with him on a more important journey, a journey of the soul. The underlying theme of man’s search for meaning transforms this travel adventure into great literature.
Following the death of his wife, Deborah, Matthiessen accepts an invitation to hike through the Himalayas. He exposes himself to the reader by acknowledging his failings as a husband. By stripping away his ego, like the bare peak of his Zen koan, his words are filled with the validity of awareness. He seeks self-forgiveness in the incomparable mountain landscape.
On his northward trek to the Crystal Monastery, Matthiessen describes his pilgrimage as an attempt to “penetrate the secrets of the mountain in search of something” as illusive as the mythical yeti or elusive as the snow leopard. The reader is never convinced that environmental extremes will lead Matthiessen to the high ledge necessary to transcend his ego or encounter the secretive snow leopard.
As Matthiessen’s physical journey continues, he describes in detail his spiritual wanderings through the beliefs of Buddhism and Taoism, which shape his philosophy. The esoteric concepts of the Tao are given solidity through metaphors and similes. The soul is as transient as a gust of snow, and a snow mountain is the mirror reflecting his true being. The memories of past existence are the glints of light, gone before they can be grasped, “like the passage of that silver bird.“
On every page, his descriptions read like poetry, filled with parallel constructions that add a musical rhythm to his prose. When Matthiessen paints the image of a feather on a silver path, his words pour across our minds in the “ sun and wind, and the rush of river, in a landscape without past or future time.” The landscape reverberates with life, whether a mountain forges through the blue sky like a sail from a ship, or “golden birds fall from the morning sun like blowing sparks that drop away and are extinguished in the dark.”
When Matthiessen describes children, he is especially tender. A little girl, dragging herself uphill like a broken cricket, retains her dignity with no resentment. A ragged child near the Crystal Mountain looks like a “smiling potato given life.” Matthiessen has left his young son behind to make his journey. The foreboding fear that, accompanying the yen of the clarion air and shimmering sunlight, will be the yang of shadows and the impeding snows of winter, and he will be trapped in the Inner Dolpo, unable to return home as promised by Thanksgiving.
Matthiessen’s journey is a gift to the reader as unique as the ancient bowl he purchased for his wife in Switzerland. The bowl symbolized a new beginning for his marriage; a beginning that was realized through the process of his wife’s death. The reader hopes that Matthiessen will be freed from his haunting fear of death, which follows him as a specter on the high mountain paths. We long for enlightenment to descend upon him like the snap of a prayer flag blown by the wind.