Trent POMPLUN, Jesuits on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri’s Mission to Tibet. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xi + 302 pages. $29.95 hc. ISBN 978-0-19-537786-6.
Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes College, Sylvania, OH 43560

Trent Pomplun, Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University in Maryland, has written an insightful book concerning Jesuit Ippolito Desideri’s eighteenth century mission to Tibet. Pomplun, in his first published volume, explores not only the man, but the fascinating mystical Tibetan culture. The author places Desideri within the context of that culture, stating that “I will treat Desideri as an explorer, a historian, and a theologian—I will even consider whether he was a spy—but I will also treat him for what he was: a missionary of the Society of Jesus in the early eighteenth century” (p. 10).

The chapter entitled “The Zünghar Invasion,” offers the lurid details of the 1717 invasion of central Tibet by a group of northwestern Oirat Mongol tribes. Desideri witnessed much of the conflict, which he described as the death of Prometheus: “When the poets speak of Prometheus, condemned to have his torso and entrails torn and torn again by the gluttonous and insatiable bird, he is shown bound in chains, prone, and helpless” (p. 104). In “The Fight with the Friars,” the reader learns of the fascinating struggles the Jesuits faced while vying for territories with Capuchin friars. Desideri speaks highly of the Capuchin missionaries at first. However, as tensions mounted and he was forced to leave the area, Desideri readily admitted that “the Capuchins were tentative, even sheepish, about their mission. He claimed that the Capuchins did not have the courage to show him the decree of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith that awarded them the mission ‘some sixty years ago’” (p. 140).

Pomplun’s book is structured into six chapters, including units on Jesuit Phantasia, Desideri’s travels from Rome to Lhasa, and Tibetan religion and theology. Each chapter is a standalone unit that advances an aspect of the Jesuit missionary’s thought process, and “has an independent thesis about how to better understand his place in the history of Tibetan studies” (p. 13).

This volume is highly recommended for both the serious student of Jesuit history, and Tibetan culture. Some may find the vast amount of notes cumbersome—almost one third of the book is dedicated to explanatory notes, but Pomplun’s book is well-researched and thoughtfully mapped out. His Select Bibliography is quite extensive, and contains primary sources in multiple languages. One hopes that Pomplun will one day translate and annotate Desideri’s complete manuscripts into English, so that the great Jesuit missionary can rightfully take his place in history.

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