This is an account of a year traveling down the Mekong from its sources in Tibet to its arrival at the sea in southern Vietnam. The author describes himself as a journalist who tired of deadlines and wanted to relax. He also tells us that in his youth he spent two years in a Kentucky federal jail for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, and that later in life, when working for the New York Times, he was deported from Tibet for attempting to report on an anti-Chinese demonstration. He has a degree in Medieval Chinese History from the University of California, Berkeley.
At 4,900km, the Mekong is the world's seventh longest river. From Tibet it flows through China's Yunnan Province, Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, to Vietnam, where its delta is the size of the Netherlands.
Needless to say, Gargan encounters problems. He's not allowed to cross into Vietnam from Cambodia by boat, and so has to return to Phnom Penh and take a plane to Saigon. And due to cataracts or low water levels, he often has to proceed by land.
He doesn't start at either of the Mekong's two accredited sources, even though Tibetan lamas visit both every year to make appropriate offerings. Instead, he begins at a point 112km downstream where the two branches meet. But perhaps it's appropriate to consider this as the start of the Mekong proper.
As a result of his experience as a journalist in Asia, he has advance contacts, some of them well-connected cosmopolitans. One Tibetan he meets runs a carpet store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, while another is on the point of flying to Austria to set up tours for the rich in the Chinese Himalayas.
In Laos he finds hope in the continuing vigor of Buddhism, and despair in the enormous proliferation of bombs left unexploded from the Vietnam War, still maiming or killing the population. The Americans, he asserts, could be clearing these up. Instead they are busy in the region looking for MIAs.
In Cambodia he abhors the numbers of fundamentalist Christian missionaries, seeing their proselytizing (which Asian religions don't indulge in) as Western colonial-style paternalism. He is delighted, by contrast, to meet Jesuits working with amputees who tell him "We want people to be good Buddhists." These same Jesuits had set up a scheme where villagers could get a cow on credit and pay for it later by returning a calf -- a brilliant idea he rightly approves of.
The Mekong Delta proves the highlight of the trip. With its inhabitants typically dressed in yellow pajamas decorated with pink rabbits, and producing every known tropical fruit, he finds few scars of war here. And the area's so independent of communist ideology, Gargan claims, that a lesbian marriage was celebrated there the year before he arrived.
Taiwan's influence is noted in several places. The author meets a potter in Yunnan making teapots for the Taiwanese market, drinks tea from Taiwan in Thailand's Mae Salong (where 50,000 KMT troops retreated in 1949), and notices that clothing factories south of Phnom Penh have been set up by Taiwanese investors.
The text is padded with digressions culled from research; on rice, on the origins of tea-drinking, on the history of Luang Prabang and, when he arrives in Vientiane, on the history of Laos in general. This is a common technique among travel writers, but the art is to keep the personal tone throughout and not let the digressions read like encyclopedia entries. On the whole Gargan fails this test.
The main problem with the book as a whole is that the author doesn't have a very original narrative voice. He has experienced a lot, and he's done his homework. He interviews people and writes down what they say. But the book is not welded together by a strong and infectious personality. As a result it's quite a lot less memorable than some of its competitors in the field. It's strikingly inferior, for instance, to Carsten Jensen's I Saw the World Begin [reviewed here on April 21], a model of how any traveling experience can be transformed by what the author himself brings to the scene.
The book's virtue lies in its attitudes. Gargan is very much a product of the 1960s, and none the worse for that. He is, for example, critical of much past, and some present, US foreign policy in Asia, extensively hostile to doctrinaire communism, angered by evangelical Christians, and instinctively sympathetic to Buddhism. He does, however, show himself skeptical about cannabis-smoking, looking at the weird book one backpacker is reading and wondering whether the drug was really necessary.
There are interesting moments here and there, such as when the author examines the paradox of his being a non-believer who is nevertheless drawn to religious cultures. He resolves this dilemma by calling these cultures "windows onto distant histories," and decides that this is why he approves of them. It's not an entirely satisfactory solution, however, as it implies people are to be conserved indefinitely in their traditional settings like so many museum pieces.
Of course the usual perspectives are here -- China's rape of Tibet, the poverty communism has imposed on Laos, the horror of Cambodia, the relative dynamism of Thailand. But the author generally doesn't think about these in a way that makes the book striking.
He ends with a long quotation on the Mekong delta from Marguerite Duras' novel The Lover. Why he doesn't pen a conclusion of his own equal to the majesty of the scene when he is elsewhere so drawn to the unexpected verb and the striking adjective isn't clear.
The Mekong flows past some of the areas of Asia most sorely afflicted by war and social upheaval. This book provides a window on these assorted worlds, and the author's attitudes to them are irreproachable. But because he strains for effect rather than having a genuine a sense of poetry, his book unfortunately doesn't leave a very lasting impression.
The River's Tale
By Edward A Gargan
Alfred A Knopf
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