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A Mystery Within
on 19 July 2005
If you are interested in China, and the Yangtze in particular, this is a fascinating read. It is cram packed with information on the Yangtze and and the countryside it travels through on its journey from its source. I have one major reservation, though: if you read between the lines it may not be all that it seems. At the outset he makes clear how much he owes to Lily, his 'guide and mentor' without whom he could never have made the journey. It turns out that the journey is long and arduous; they are frequently uncomfortable, and find themselves in serious danger on more than a few occasions. Throughout, Lily proves a tower of strength, even though sometimes fearful and, especially when dealing with Chinese officialdom. At the end of what seems to have been an epic journey Winchester leaves his companions, Lily among them, and walks off to view the 'source' of the Yangtze on his own: and that's the end of the book. From what I could make out about Lily I hardly think she would have stayed behind and not travelled those last few yards with Winchester to see, what we are told is to the Chinese, the 'cradle of China'. Something fishy seems to be going on.
Similarly, he gives the impression throughout the book that he stops and 'chats' with the locals as they are passing through. Now, unless he's a linguist of some note this seems highly unlikely. Especially, when you consider that Chinese accents and dialects can be mutually incomprehensible within relatively few miles of each other. And especially when he arrives in the land of the Yi, Naxi and Yao peoples who speak languages that are Tibetan-Burmese linguistically. Of course, he never says he is or he isn't a remarkable linguist: but why leave readers with this impression? Does he think it adds kudos to his account?
With these reservations I am left wondering how much of the journey he actually did himself and how much he constructed from the many interviews and considerable research he carried out. After all, Lily must remain conveniently anonymous, and so we are left to take him at his word. In a review by his publisher he is described as curious, urbane, witty and knowledgeable - nowhere are significant linguistic skills mentioned, even in passing.
These reservations take the edge off the book, but it is still an interesting and thought-provoking read.