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A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam Paperback – December 19, 2003
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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"One of the most absorbing travel books I have read for a very long time. The great charm of the work is its literary vividness. Nothing he describes is dull, and he writes as entertainingly of a Saigon nightclub as of the stupendous ruins of Angkor."
About the Author
Norman Lewis is England's finest, living travel writer. He has written a dozen travel books, including such masterpieces as Naples'44, Golden Earth and The Honoured Society. He has also written thirteen novels. Lewis regards his life's major achievement to be the reaction to an article written by him entitled Genocide in Brazil, published in 1968. This led to a change in Brazilian law relating to the treatment of Indians, and to the formation of Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples.
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Written in 1951 by a well-traveled Englishman, this account of his travels documents a surface or superficial view of the lands then still controlled by the French and seen as their colony. I was mightily disappointed that pretty much the only people he speaks with are the French government or military officials stationed in these countries. I was somewhat awed at how he just gets invited to ride in their convoys and sleep in their villas. It was an occupied country, and he was treated sort of like a war correspondent, but he wasn't that, and the war had not yet begun.
Sometimes I was annoyed, or even saddened, by his stereotypes, his blithe generalizations about an entire nationality's traits or abilities. This is not the first travel memoir I've read by a British male in a developing country, but it made me feel more conflicted than most. For example, he very bluntly describes (with clear disapproval) how all the labor on the profit-making French plantations is conscripted indigenous people from the mountain villages, and he acutely documents how even a sympathetic governor is (in a sense) left with no choice but to turn a blind eye to slavery. But then, when he goes to Cambodia, he deems all its people lazy and even blames that on the practice of Buddhism, about which he clearly knows almost nothing.
He gives a muddled account of the history of the Khmers and their civilization as he describes the best-known temples at Angkor, but he seems to have no feeling towards anything he sees there (except that he finds the large faces of the Bayon temple "sinister"). He neither meets nor talks with any Cambodian people and apparently made no effort to do so.
Similarly, when he gets to Luang Prabang he seems to be merely bored by the town, mentioning that there is a temple on practically every block, but making no effort to learn any stories associated with them. He climbs Phousi Hill, disparages the little temple he finds there, and promptly makes arrangements to get back to Saigon.
Even when he gets to hang out with Viet Minh for several days (in the final chapter), with no other Europeans present, he learns nothing about them as people. He describes only their physical features and their actions. He has no conversations about their views of past, present, future, or their motivations.
I enjoyed Lewis's writing style and the sense of going along with him, seeing through his eyes (much like reading a Paul Theroux book), but by the end I was happy to quit his condescending attitudes. I've spent time in all these countries (since 2008 - not the same time frame as Lewis), and read their histories as well. It's very sad to think that for some readers, this book will be their introduction to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Lewis writes clean, crisp, one might say "British" prose, which is easily digested -- so much so, in fact, that it takes a while to realize that the book is actually quite boring. His trip is somewhat of a litany of banal travel clichés: descriptions of bad roads, worse bus drivers, decrepit vehicles, inscrutable natives, "exotic" food, and so forth. Despite his evident interest in various small rural tribes, he doesn't seem to know very much about them, and thus, isn't able to tell the reader much of anything useful about them either. The most interesting parts of the book are his interactions with other Westerners, especially the missionaries, plantation lords, and various French civil and military administrators who are eager to show him around.
The missionaries and plantation bosses come in for pretty heavy scorn from Lewis, and anyone interested in the roots of the Vietnam War would be well advised to read the chapter where Lewis witnesses firsthand how the French system in Vietnam operated along feudal relationships of power and local villagers were forced to labor on plantations. Alas, there's also plenty of scorn (albeit less direct) for the natives of the places he visits. There are no end of terms such as "squalid", "barbaric", "indolent", "immoral", "sinful" and the like applied to various tribespeople along the way. The levels of condescension are rather disappointing from someone eulogized by the Telegraph after his death as "perhaps the best, and certainly the most underrated, English travel writer of the 20th century."This is the book that allegedly inspired Graham Greene to go to Vietnam and then produce The Quiet American, but most contemporary readers will find Greene's book to be far more engaging than this dated work.