Under Western eyes
I HAVE SEEN THE WORLD BEGIN by Carsten Jensen Harvill, £16.99, pp. 337 Carsten Jensen does not explain why he took time off from journalism in Copenhagen to wander about through China, Cambodia and Vietnam, but he gives us a hint when he writes on page 178 that
our world harbours uncharted territory, no longer white spaces on the map but black spaces, erected by political terrorism, defended not by insurmountable chains of mountains and impenetrable jungle. but by dogma, blood-lust and modern weapon technology, all of which are again closing the doors our curiosity had opened. . . But there are other countries, inaccessible only a moment ago, which are opening up once more. The Earth is born again and crying out to be discovered, but the greatest illusion of our time lies in the name it has accorded itself; the age of information.
I take this to mean that Jensen wanted to see for himself the countries that suffered respectively Mao's Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and the longest-running war of the 20th century.
He acknowledges from the start that Jung Chang's Wild Swans tad revealed to me how little I knew about China', and wisely does not try to compete with her or the other native interpreters of the Chinese personality. His remarks on Shanghai are neither as well-informed or as entertaining as some of the books by the Shanghai-born authoress Lynn Pan. On the other hand, he is an acute and savage observer of some of the fellow Westerners he encountered in China, most of whom appeared to dislike the country and its people.
At his hotel in Beijing, he is joined by a fair-haired American in his forties who is berating the waitress. 'This isn't what I ordered, why can't I just get what I asked for? What's the matter with you Chinese?' — then to Jensen: 'The Chinese are driving me crazy. I won't be back, that's for sure.'
Earlier that day, the American had visited Tiananmen Square and laid a flower at the foot of the monument to the Chinese Revolution. He had intended to take a photograph of his little set-piece, but had been picked up by the police and given an hour-long interrogation. Jensen feels no sympathy for this demonstration:
The flower on the paving stones where the students had died was a tableau destined only for his own photograph album. Besides, how could he feel any sympathy with rebels in a country all of whose people he despised?
Jensen is equally critical of a French couple he meets who had been travelling for a month in China. They had best enjoyed a visit to the obscure Dong tribe, whose artefacts they were now taking back to their home in Paris. 'As time went on,' he reflects, 'I was to meet many visitors to China who loathed the country but who were enamoured of its colourful ethnic minorities, whose unavoidable submersion in China's sea of people they bemoaned, even as they helped themselves to the few remaining treasures.' The fondness that many youthful travellers from the West feel for China's ethnic minorities might be attributed to the fact that they were one of the few opportunities in China for them to feel culturally superior.
During his travels through China, Jensen does not appear to have met any foreign enthusiasts of the Revolution, of the kind who went to the Soviet Union during the 1930s, then later to Spain for the civil war, to Eastern Europe, Cuba, Zimbabwe and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas. In the 1930s. Evelyn Waugh described this kind of tourist in Mexico:
These are the ideologues; first in Moscow, then in Barcelona, now in Mexico, these credulous pilgrims pursue their quest for the promised land, constantly disappointed, never disillusioned, ever thirsty for the phrases in which they find refreshment; they have flocked to Mexico in the last few months, for the present rulers have picked up a Marxist vocabulary.
The communist system, which still lingers on in south-east Asia, has finally lost its appeal to guillible Westerners. In Cambodia, on the second leg of his journey, Jensen sees what can happen when revolution is brought to its logical end: 'The Pol Pot regime closed down the schools, the universities, and all other types of educational institution. Kampuchea was not a classroom. The country was more akin to a giant interrogation room.'
Jensen is as baffled as the rest of us by the character of the young Khmer Rouge who carried out the atrocities in the Killing Fields. He tries in vain to relate them to a Serb war criminal he met when he was covering the events in Yugoslavia. Perhaps English readers will find a closer comparison in the two Liverpool boys who kidnapped and murdered the infant James Bulger. The Khmer Rouge baffled me even when I met them face to face in their camps inside Thailand during the 1980s. Although Jensen has studied some of the literature on the Khmer Rouge, he does not seem to have read Surviving the Killing Fields by Haing S. Ngor, who played the part of the interpreter in the Hollywood film about the fall of Phnom Penh and its aftermath. Haing S. Ngor, himself one of the lucky survivors, blames the events in his country on Kum,
a Cambodian word for a particularly Cambodian mentality of revenge. If I hit you with my fist and you wait five years and then shoot me in the back on a dark night, that is Kum. It is the infection that gnaws at our national soul.
At one point in Cambodia, Jensen seems to accept the fallacy, popularised by the film The Killing Fields, that the Khmer Rouge atrocities were to be blamed on US bombing. In Vietnam, too, he is prone to accept the left/liberal mythology of the war. He is moved to tears by a communist war museum and still seems to believe that the rulers of South Vietnam were crooks and cowards. He remarks that the Southern surrender in April 1975 was accepted by the Hanoi journalist Bui Tin but does not mention that Bui has since defected to Paris where he has published an indictment of the Vietnamese communists.
However, Jensen is one of the rare Western visitors to perceive that Vietnamese women are as witty and charming as they are beautiful: The men often made dull company. The women, on the other hand, were anxious to involve themselves in the world outside.' Jensen's amorous encounters in Saigon and Hanoi form a pleasantly light-hearted epilogue to his sombre experiences in China and Cambodia.