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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but totally unbelieveable, 13 May 2009
This review is from: 1421 : The Year China Discovered the World (Paperback)
As with so many books of this kind, Menzies' saga begins plausibly enough, rooted in real history. As it continues, it becomes gradually more incredible. I don't know whether this is - charitably - because he has a grand vision to which he has garnered any evidence he can or - less charitably - because he dreamt up a money-spinner and perpetrated an intellectual fraud.

Certainly, he's not above economy with the truth. Early editions apparently said that he was born in China, later corrected. His frequent assertions that his naval background gives him special insights are, equally, disingenuous. Many of these relate to ocean currents and prevailing winds which are, of course, easily researched in reference books or on the internet.

At the least, Menzies has followed a course of wild speculation which is unsupported by any substantial evidence. Initially, the idea that a Chinese vessel could have been blown round the Cape of Good Hope is far from implausible. One starts to get slightly uneasy as it sets up stones inscribed in Tamil (why?) in Africa and colonises South America with chickens. Then things start to get really peculiar. We're asked to believe that the Chinese picked up giant sloths (generally agreed to be long extinct) in Patagonia and took them to New Zealand (where needless to say, they have vanished without trace), en route visiting Antarctica and Australia.

If this seems (other than the giant sloths) to be just within the realms of possibility - after all, Australia could be reached quite easily from Indonesia - one's jaw drops when a voyage around the north of Greenland is described.

It looks as though Menzies has trawled the internet for anomaly sites and pressed every possible oddity into service. When we reached the Newport Tower, my reaction was, "Oh, no, not again." In a way it's a pity because there are some real mysteries here: the Piri Reis map, the Janela stone, the Tamil bell and the Korotangi bird. It's just that none of them are really explained by a Ming dynasty voyage, let alone support it. It's also these things that make me doubt the research story that Menzies tells; I don't believe he came upon them as he followed the imaginary voyages of Chinese admirals. I think he found them first.

All that said, it is a quite entertaining read. My favourite line: "I have many happy memories of that beautiful land [NZ] after taking my submarine there at Christmas in 1969", which sounds like a psychedelic camping trip.

1421 has been described as the epitome of "anti-orientalism", the reaction to the "triumph of the West" story, and it is. Menzies finishes with a contemplation of what the world would have been like if it had been opened up by cultured, tolerant Chinese instead of dastardly Europeans. Presumably the same cultured, tolerant Chinese of the middle ages who castrated children and buried the emperor's concubines alive? No people has a monopoly of good or evil.
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