With Snake Lake, Mr. Greenwald has created a dish that is boldly and unapologetically spicy but still retains the raw and bloody mess that makes up the human experience – the meat is rare and it bleeds; yet, there’s so much added flavor that you wonder at not only the dish in front of you or the master chef behind it but also at your own taste buds, the ambience around you, the roof over your head, and the ever-present (if not always visible) countless stars in the heavens above. Snake Lake bursts in your consciousness like a supernova.
Mr. Greenwald deftly minces the meat of the dish – the death of his brother – with the garlicky experience of slowly losing one’s closest family member to a vampiric and unfathomable demon. Then he takes exquisite care in selecting the right ingredients and spices – the heated mustard oil (the 1990 People’s Movement in Nepal) that binds the dish together, the fenugreek seeds of hopes of Nepali democracy browning on the hot mustard oil, the gingery Grace, the understated and underrated chili-like fiery determination within the narrator himself that carries the entire dish, the salt of the earth people he meets, and the turmeric-like healing properties embodied by Chokyi Nyima, the Tibetan lama. Best of all, Mr. Greenwald garnishes all of this with something green, something hopeful, something that remains in your spiritual palate even after you close the book: Buddhist equanimity in the face of philosophic existential threats. The green onions of Tibetan Buddhism are liberally sprinkled all over the dish. They provide a much-needed balance to the equation.
The result of all this is a masterpiece. The book captures the social and cultural realms of two very different places, halfway across the globe from each other. And yet it brings the binding force of humanity to the table. Humanity. With all its foibles, with all its glory. I am equally impressed by Mr. Greenwald’s technical skills as a writer as by the way he shows his own vulnerable self, his willingness to share his humanity. Our lives, to be cliché about it, is as funny as it is sad. There’s wit and charm in it all but there’s also dread and despair. Mr. Greenwald captures both and does a great job weaving them into a fine tapestry, although I must confess that at times the artwork seems more like a tableau vivant, as if Mr. Greenwald is merely capturing a carefully crafted image where costumed actors are forced to play their parts. But that’s to be expected in a memoir, especially one that has to bring such disparate experiences together in a meaningful way.
The reason why I stretch the analogy, i.e., Snake Lake as the dish described above, is because of Kathmandu. The titular “lake” in the book is a small pond of sorts in Kathmandu (Naag Pokhari). Mr. Greenwald makes much of this pond and the myth behind its existence. The pond morphs into a lake. The snakes grow into mythical proportions. The metaphor becomes an allegory. And he does this so deftly and elegantly that one wonders if he was born and raised in Nepal. All of this clearly shows that Kathmandu, and by that extension Nepal, is very dear to Mr. Greenwald. In Newari culture, which is the bedrock of Kathmandu culture, there’s a famous and nutritious dish called Kachila that somehow manages to take raw water buffalo meat and mix it with the right type and amount of spices. That dish is and has been a source of great sustenance to countless people who have farmed the Kathmandu valley for ages and assuaged the wrath of many a fickle snakes, many a rulers. Mr. Greenwald’s book, to bite and swallow (or constrict?) the analogy to death, manages to take raw emotions – his own – and deftly cover them up with spicy and distracting anecdotes. The reader is left wondering. Wondering if there can ever be any other way to serve an experience as raw as losing one’s brother to suicide while witnessing the brewing of a historical revolution.
Snake Lake is a full-bodied and earthy memoir that tackles a brawny topic with delicate wit and charm. It is rich and yet is tender. A lesser writer would probably have served a broth full of bromide salts.