The long-lasting conflict in Vietnam made the name of the Mekong familiar to people in other countries, but to those who live along its banks and tributaries it is known simply as “the river.” While it is certainly one of the world’s great waterways, readers will be surprised to learn from John Keay that it has only recently been traced to its original source in the mountains of Tibet. Most of Keay’s book, however, describes its early exploration.
In fact the book tells two stories, the more important of which follows a 19th-century French expedition to map the river’s course, establish its features and assess its potential for commercial use. This is the dramatic central tale, set fully in the context of a colonial age. The accompanying story describes the author’s own negotiation of the waterway, as he retraced the route of the explorers, and tried to assess the difficulties they faced.
The French presence in Southeast Asia came about largely because of France’s rivalry with Britain, which by the mid-19th century had already established an empire as far to the east as Burma (Myanmar), and even held influence in Siam (Thailand). So the French sought dominion in the lands beyond: “Just as the Nile had given Britain its entree into Africa, the Mekong would give France its entree into Asia.”
Like all great rivers, the Mekong sustains the lives of the riparian peoples who surround it, until it reaches the end of its course in the incredibly fertile Delta region. But, as the author remarks, it remains “the least utilized” of all these rivers. At the time of the French exploration, in the 1860s, there were no bridges anywhere on the Mekong, and even now there are very few. As the major artery of a key continental region, it ought to have been of great importance for trade and transport. The expedition would discover why it had never been so.
The leader of the expedition, Francis Garnier, was a “driven” man whose remarkable achievement is little known today but should be ranked, says the author, with David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, the explorers of the Nile. Keay introduces us to the various members of Garnier’s small team, and follows their difficult journey with sympathy and shrewd intelligence. He also describes the terrain in a lucid way, so that we understand why the tributary of the Mekong that feeds Cambodia’s great lake Tonle Sap flows at different times in different directions.
Garnier and his men started from Cambodia, with five tons of luggage, but soon after leaving found themselves plunging into virgin forest, and eventually into an area “with no villages and no sign of man,” though the natural surroundings impressed them greatly, especially the trees. Quite soon, they realized that important sections of the river were un-navigable. Although for some of its course the Mekong cuts through narrow gorges, and is much deeper than it is wide, in Laos it spreads out into a huge waterfall, 16 kilometers in breadth. This section could only be got past on foot, and the whole expedition came to a halt. But Garnier, “mad about the Mekong,” would not turn back, and the group struggled past this part at his insistence.
Afterward, waiting for permission to go on, the Frenchmen lingered for some weeks in Laos, and thought that they had found a paradise. The scenery that they encountered then can, as Keay points out, still be experienced by visitors to the old capital of Luang Prabang. With an ever-diminishing store of food and presents, the group continued as far as the Shan States, and to what is now the Golden Triangle, but finally came to the end of their resources in this hostile territory. To get back, they diverted into Yunnan, and returned through China.
Most, but not all, the members of the exploration team survived. Garnier himself was honored in Britain by the Royal Geographical Society, but is no longer much remembered by the French, who would eventually be forced to make an ignominious withdrawal from the region. In his informative and well-written book, Keay supplies all the relevant contexts, past and present. Some of the consequences of the French colonial presence in Indo-China (as it was known) are still unresolved.
Garnier is unmentioned in most guidebooks to Vietnam and Laos, so this account is timely. Readers of Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American” (1955), however, may recall the “Place Garnier,” where a fictional bomb explodes in the center of old Saigon, but in modern Ho Chi Minh City the name of the square has naturally been changed.
From another generation
Despite the long engagement between Vietnam and the West, in the throes and in the aftermath of war, there have not yet been many literary consequences, at least in English. Monique Trong’s imaginative novel, “The Book of Salt” (2003), was an interesting contribution, though it was set in France. The work of the Vietnamese-American poet Mo^ng-Lan may be viewed as a useful exploration of this uneasy territory.
In “Rush Hour,” set in Hanoi, she notes: “my parents walked these streets / some forty years ago.” Later she provides a sketch of swirling traffic, one of several drawings that decorate this attractive volume. It is left to the reader to connect the broken utterances of the poems: “hidden motion between knife and shadow.” But we are in no doubt that the poet carries the past within her, as she says in “Trail”: “I can correctly say this an era of exile . . . I speak of nothing no ideas just Vietnam motherland inside us.”
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