Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Book review- A Dragon Apparent

A Dragon Apparent- Travels in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam
Norman Lewis, 1951

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The late Norman Lewis (1908-2003) is a celebrated English writer who authored thirteen novels and thirteen non-fiction works, mostly travel writing, throughout his lengthy career. Perhaps best known for Naples '44 (published 1978) and The Missionaries (1988), one of Lewis' seminal travel books was the much earlier A Dragon Apparent (1951), a record of the author's travels around Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at the brink of the crumbling of France's colonial grip on Indochina, and in advance of the disastrous American war that was to follow.

The world that Lewis captures is considerably bleak and forlorn. One of his first impressions is of the disdain seemingly shown towards him, a foreigner, by Vietnamese people, who were described by early missionaries as inquisitive towards strangers. This seems to be a suggestion of the damaging impact of colonialism, one of many signs that Lewis notes as he travels across the peninsula, visiting tribal villages, plantations and Viet Minh strongholds.

Lewis' travels take him primarily through southern Vietnam, then still known as Cochin China, with briefer visits to Cambodia and Laos. Unfortunately he is not able to make it across the border to Tonkin, northern Vietnam, which surely would have been an interesting visit. On his numerous trips with French officers, Lewis meets communities of ethnic minority groups and witnesses their plight to retain their traditional customs within changing wider political circumstances. The tragedy of this book lies in the knowledge that the moment in history seen by Lewis was soon to be lost forever.

This special interest in tribal groups is not unique to A Dragon Apparent. Across his extensive repertoire of writings, Lewis is known for his interest in tribal societies and for his concern over the damage caused to them by outside influences, particularly through the activity of missionaries. Notably, Lewis is known to have regarded his life’s greatest achievement as being the outcome of his 1968 Sunday Times article Genocide in Brazil, which resulted in a change in the Brazilian law regarding the treatment of Indians, as well as the establishment of the organisation Survival International, which campaigns to defend the rights of tribal people around the world.

There are some interesting cultural revelations to be learnt from Lewis' travels in Indochina, due to his keen interest in the habits and lifestyles of the people he sees. On first arriving in Saigon, he observes: “There was a rapid, silently swirling traffic in the streets of bicycle rickshaws mixed up with cycles; a bus, sweeping out of a side street into the main torrent, caught a cyclist, knocked him off and crushed his machine. Both the bus driver and the cyclist were Chinese or Vietnamese, and the bus driver, jumping down from his seat, rushed over to congratulate the cyclist on his lucky escape. Both men were delighted, and the cyclist departed, carrying the wreckage of his machine and still grinning broadly.”

As the above passage demonstrates, Lewis has a dignified writing style that suits his self-styled position as an outside observer of everything he witnesses.

The 1982 edition of this book was published by Eland, a London based publishing house that specialises in travel books. The edition includes darkly printed photographs that were reproduced from the first edition (the originals no longer existed), which, despite being imperfect in quality, are nonetheless fascinating glimpses into the tribal lives Lewis describes. In his preface, Lewis comments on his travels in Indochina with the hindsight of the incredible destruction it had endured in the years between the first and second publications of this book. He writes hauntingly of “the greatest holocaust ever to be visited on the East”: “It consumed not only the present, but the past; an obliteration of cultures and values as much as physical things. From the ashes that remained no phoenix would ever rise”.

Despite the tragedy of the destruction Indochina has endured, there is some comfort for the reader of Lewis' work, particularly one who has spent time in each of the three countries in question, to find that there are certain places and scenes mentioned in Lewis' account that are seemingly eternal elements of Indochina, transcending the passing of time and the destructiveness of war. In some cases this is the sublime, such as the beautiful ruins of the ancient kingdom of Angkor, and in other cases the ridiculous, such as the Cao Dai temple erected in Tay Ninh in 1926 as the holy centre of Vietnam’s most bizarre religion. The latter was described by Lewis as probably “the most outrageously vulgar building ever to have been erected with serious intent”, and, incidentally, was described in similarly derogatory terms by Graham Greene. Yet whether for better or for worse, it is comforting to be reminded of these distinct, nostalgic characteristics and to be reassured that at least some things have survived Indochina’s most volatile period in recent history.

Published only four years before Greene’s classic The Quiet American, it is interesting to note that A Dragon Apparent has been described as Greene’s inspiration. Greene was certainly a fan of Lewis’, describing him as “one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century”.

For his extensive collection of works and the impact they have had, it is perhaps surprising that Lewis is not better known as a writer. In the Guardian’s obituary for him, published in July 2003, this is accounted to the ‘modesty’ of this ‘deeply private’ author. Certainly, in A Dragon Apparent, Lewis is never showy and maintains a detached, civilized writing style. Yet for me, this lent the book to lack any feeling of passion, and consequently I did not find it to be particularly compelling. Nonetheless, as I have already alluded to, there are several moments of intrigue from Lewis’ experiences in Indochina, from which I learned new things about the culture of Indochina as it was before the wars. No doubt, A Dragon Apparent is an important documentation of a pivotal moment in the history of Indochina; a time and place at the brink of monumental change that would leave it irrevocably scarred.