Magazine article The Spectator

Where Heaven Meets Hades

Magazine article The Spectator

Where Heaven Meets Hades

Article excerpt

Where Heaven meets Hades MAD ABOUT THE MEKONG: EXPLORATION AND EMPIRE IN SOUTH-EAST ASIA by John Keay HarperCollins, £20, pp. 294, ISBN 0007111134 £18 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

It is something of a surprise, and a very pleasant one, to come across a story of which one knows little, and yet the importance of which is immediately apparent. John Keay's tale of the first attempt by Europeans to explore and map the Mekong River is just such a one, and his telling of it is seductively simple. He begins, of necessity, with the accounts of the protagonists who, coming as they did from a heroic age bent on relentlessly documenting itself, left considerable but little known records. But he supplements the story with his own travels and photographs and the reader is left with the impression that he has 'been there, done that', and wouldn't mind doing it again.

The Mekong Exploration Commission of 1866-68

outmarched David Livingstone and outmapped H. M. Stanley. It also outshone them in that display of sociological categorising, economic sleuthing and political effrontery that was expected of 19th-century explorers.

Leaving aside the felicity or otherwise of words like Outmapped', the reader acknowledges that it is an epic journey, geographically, emotionally, politically. 'Retracing the expedition's trail means revisiting the aftermath of more 20th-century wars - international, civil, "secret" and ethnic - than even the Balkans can boast,' Keay writes and it is considerably to his credit that he does just that. The story of the Commission's journey is told chronologically, and it is the nature of the Mekong that the journey starts not in the Himalayas, but in the fetid delta around Saigon where the waters finally feed into the South China Sea.

It was from here that the party, essentially a group of six men, set off to explore the impossible river in which 'Heaven meets Hades around every corner'. …

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