The plumber who fooled the literary world

Lobsang Rampa fabricated the most beautiful and commercially successful stories, but he was not what he seemed, or who he claimed to be. 

The plumber who fooled the literary world

As I was performing my daily ritual of re-arranging my chaotic library, I came across an astonishing book.

The Third Eye, by Lobsang Rampa, is a model for evocative writing. But it is nothing less than a forgery, written under an exotic-sounding pen name designed to obscure the true identity of the author.

I had been intending for some time to offer it up for discussion and debate as a model of the so-called ‘fabricated books’ promoted by Borges and before him, Fernando Pessoa.

This book, which I consider to bethe largest fully-fledged forgery operation, overcame all the obstacles in its path and caveats about to achieve the status of a cultural event. It became hugely popular and was printed in dozens of editions and many languages.

My story with it began nearly 15 years ago when I was touring the Cairo Book Fair, looking for the unusual publishing houses, the ones publishing books you cannot find outside Cairo at all and only found within the city with difficulty.

Among them, I discovered Dar Sindbad for Publishing and Media, which later trimmed its name to Sinbad for Publishing and Media. Its books did not attract my eye straight away, but I found a one of their books translated by the Palestinian novelist and translator Ahmed Omar Shaheen, who lived and died in Egypt, and who passed away, coincidentally, in the same year his translation was published, 2001.

Because I respect Shaheen's selections for translation, I expected that I made a good find. I was right, not least since the publisher or translator wrote on the back cover of the book: “T. Lobsang Rampa was preordained to be a Tibetan priest, a sign from the stars that could not be ignored”.

This book was his autobiography, which he wrote in English after he left Tibet and was unable to return there due to the Chinese invasion of his country.

The book aroused a lot of interest and astonished readers who devoured it, taking it into over thirty editions. The translation I found was the twenty-sixth edition, published in 1992.

The world of Tibet and its high and distant rituals are clearly depicted and irresistible to read. As I expected, the autobiography was for me a window into a different world, and it also contrasted to the usual picture of the traditional Buddhist atmosphere.

But I was in for a totally unexpected surprise.

Several years after reading the book and forgetting about it, I came across it, filed in the African bookshelf of my library.

The writer's name caught my eye and I searched with some curiosity on Google to refresh my memory of the writer and to recall which African country he belongs to, and find out if other books of his are in translation. 

The search results hit me like a thunderbolt. 

Lobsang Rampa was a fraud. He was really a plumber named Cyril Henry Hoskin, who fabricated his story having become fascinated by the world he went on to depict so successfully. 

Lobsang Rampa was a fraud. He was really a plumber named Cyril Henry Hoskin, who fabricated his story having become fascinated by the world he went on to depict so successfully. 

After his own reading started his adventure, he wrote The Third Eye under his pen name and boldly sent his manuscript Secker & Warbourg, a company that went on to become famous in the 1960s for publishing Simone de Beauvoir, Alberto Moravia, Günter Grass and others. 

Secker & Warbourg liked Rampa's work and followed the usual methods of checking it and authorising it for publication.

They sent drafts of it to specialists in Eastern studies and beliefs. And the experts warned the publishers that the book was unlikely to be genuine, doubting that the author had even been to India or Tibet. 

But the publishers were undeterred. They signed an £800 contract with the writer to print the book in 1956 a contract to print the book for £800 pounds sterling, equivalent to £15,000 pounds today. 

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