The most unusual public library I ever had a passionate relationship with was inside a white-painted palace in Kathmandu. When you came into it, you were greeted by a stuffed tiger and two standing suits of armor. Past these you saw antique volumes in hand-crafted cabinets that filled an expansive room, with a ceremonial staircase rising in the center and oil-painted portraits along the upper walls of aristocrats from another age. It was here that I discovered the magnetism of fantasy — and not just because of how the Kaiser Library looked. It was because of what was in its books.
In the early 1980s I was in the midst of two years on the Indian Subcontinent, most of which I spent teaching English and writing tourist-magazine articles in Nepal’s capital city while I tried write my first book. I had left my American newspaper job months earlier to travel on the Persian Gulf and in Pakistan, trying to earn a better understanding of the Muslim world. Coming off that time on the road I had found work in Kathmandu, and it was in the throes of trying to get my book-writing off the ground — I went through reams and reams of typing paper on my portable Olivetti, and threw nearly all of it away — that someone told me about the library.
It had been the personal palace library of Field Marshal Kaiser Rana, scion of a ruthless dynasty that dominated this Himalayan nation from 1846 to 1951. The Ranas kept Nepal isolated, reserving wealth and education almost solely for themselves and building a collection of Asian-colonial-style mansions in the city. This one held Kaiser Rana’s personal library. His widow donated it to the nation in 1969, and the general’s personal retreat became of the world’s most unique public libraries, with over 50,000 books, documents and works of art.
I started spending afternoons in the Kaiser Library. You could say I got lost in it, but I’m not sure I was. I was exploring a trove of treasures. Once I had pored through its English volumes, pulled from those polished-wood shelves, about Muslim sections of the old British Empire, I pushed into a back corridor lined with metal cabinets — and in those I found Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God.
I was already a Campbell reader — his The Hero with a Thousand Faces had informed and shaped my journey, as it has for so many others — but this was new. I spent weeks working through Campbell’s four volumes about mythology, Primitive, Oriental, Occidental and Creative, filling notebooks and writing down passages. I’ve never been much of a fantasy reader, or writer, but in those books I think I found something of what young readers so often discover in today’s fantasy series: exciting stories that are timeless, and that bring us a sense that the struggles of life really do have meaning.
The Kaiser Library is still there; some terrific photos of it are posted at this blog from Nepal. The book I began in Kathmandu, Street of Storytellers, was rejected 75 times and never published; but I kept on writing, and the Kaiser Library has stayed with me through these years. The memory of my afternoons there, deep in among those books and paintings — there was a stuffed mongoose, too, coiled atop a bookshelf, as if to strike a cobra — feels, to me, as valuable as a personal legacy. I suppose, in a way, that’s what it is.