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Travels Through China, Cambodia, and Vietnam

by Carsten Jensen & translated by Barbara Haveland

Pub Date: March 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-15-100768-3
Publisher: Harcourt

A thoughtful, if at times ponderous, passage through blood-soaked terrain.

Danish journalist and novelist Jensen has a sense of humor befitting a countryman of Kierkegaard; he scarcely cracks a smile as he moves among the paradoxical cities and cultures of Southeast Asia, save when a “famous professor of medicine who had once operated on a government minister let rip a resounding fart.” Grimly noting the overcrowded streets of Shanghai, the impoverished villagers of Lijiang, the orphans of Phnom Penh, he philosophizes and strikes dark moods (“. . . this metaphysical weariness that seemed to strike at the very will to live”). His penchant for melancholia, coupled with the fact that his travels rarely take him beyond the officially approved tourist circuit, would all make for very tiresome reading were Jensen not so blessedly smart; wherever he goes, he is able to join a deep well of bookish knowledge to a penetrating eye for telling details. He observes, for example, that the ferocity and viciousness of the Khmer Rouge’s destruction of Cambodia sprang from the unformed morality of the revolution’s young perpetrators, many not yet teenagers; he marvels at the existence of apparently insurmountable boundaries of class in a supposedly classless China; he weeps on reading the words of an American soldier begging forgiveness of the Vietnamese people decades after fighting there. Throughout, he revels in the uncomfortable tradition of the European existentialist intellectual: “As a traveler, you are a nobody in the eyes of others. And in your own eyes: the accused. . . . Perhaps I was making this journey to store up future memories; in order, later, to yearn for the peacefulness of those foreign landscapes which I was far too anxious and breathless to take in while I was actually looking at them, and which only became real once they receded into the distance.”

Well-written—though elusive—literary travel through interior country: Jensen’s US debut is a cut above the usual slide-show travelogue.