Friday, February 22, 2002

travels without a deadline

The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong, By Edward A. Gargan. Knopf, $26.95

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in February 2002).

EDWARD GARGAN set out to journey the length of the Mekong River to "hear the tales of survivors, the tales of suffering and endurance" of the people who live along its course in China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. For 15 years a correspondent for The New York Times, he wanted to escape the burden of deadlines, of being "driven by the subject of each story." He wanted the freedom to linger, to wander, to listen and reflect.

The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong bears the signs of that peripatetic agenda, for good and ill. At moments, Gargan succeeds in communicating the sense of luxury that comes with having only the roughest of plans and answering to no one -- for instance, when he enjoys a meal of chicken and rice cooked by a boatman on a kerosene stove. But too often, Gargan's apparently conscious decisions to eschew the discipline of story-creation cause the book to meander.

He mentions his discovery of illegal casino gambling in Jinhong, China, but does not pursue the story because, he professes, he is not a gambler. In the backwater of Vinh Long, Vietnam, he dismisses with a single parenthetical phrase a lesbian marriage that occurred the previous year, choosing instead to write about young people enamoured of America. He runs into opium traffickers in China, Burma and Laos, but finds them of passing interest only. After all, he has to get down the river.

While one might think that the journey would necessarily land Gargan in remote, untravelled towns, he also spends a surprising amount of time on well-worn tourist paths. He does not always travel on the river -- some portions of it are not navigable -- or even along it. For instance, two chapters in his book focus on the towns of Dali and Lijiang in China, both 60 kilometres from the Mekong, and both way stations for backpackers in southwest China.

The book makes up for the absence of journalistic focus and adventurous derring-do in part through some fine historical writing. Gargan's knowledge of the path he travels and his chronicles of past events are unquestionable, but the book's didactic rewards are undermined by its essential aimlessness.

It lacks the political thrust of the travel writing of Robert Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts) or V.S. Naipaul (India: A Million Mutinies Now), so that the sum of Gargan's observations is no greater than the parts. At times, his pronouncements are rather obvious. The book's introduction tells us he wants to gauge the American legacy in the region, still deep and wide a quarter century after the Vietnam War, but the conclusion he draws is striking in its banality. While he remembers the Vietnam of Nick Ut's photograph of the naked girl running down Highway I after a napalm attack on her village, "all of that seemed so distant, so much part of another time, another place. The Vietnam through which I floated was now looking elsewhere."

In fairness, Gargan relies on his informants' stories, reported in their own words, to capture the concerns of the people along the river. A newspaper reporter must ask leading questions and omit the answers that do not suit his story, but Gargan allows the people he meets to talk about the things that interest them, often with considerable success. He skilfully unveils the complexity of emotion behind the pride one Vietnamese bui doi -- "dust of life," the name given to the offspring of American soldiers -- takes in his father: "He pushed his chest out under his black T-shirt. 'My father was an army colonel,' he said. 'He was high rank'."

Perhaps it is not surprising that the book is strongest in moments that require careful objectivity, the weighing of historical accounts and the reporting of people's stories in their own words. Those are skills well honed in a 15-year career as a reporter. But that dispassionate eye makes for a poor yarn. Gargan is not much of a raconteur -- his anecdotes come few and far between -- and he does not emerge as a personality. He is neither a likeable curmudgeon like Paul Theroux nor a mad adventurer like Bruce Chatwin.

The River's Tale offers a good survey of Asian politics and peoples along the region's most romantic river, but readers of this magazine will be frustrated, in turns, when it points out the obvious and when it fails to pursue the intriguing mysteries it uncovers.