Shaplen's Asian Notebook
A Turning Wheel By Robert Shaplen Random House
SOME PEOPLE WOULD CALL Robert Shaplen brave. Others would say that he is just plain crazy. Anybody who attempts to summarize 30 years of modern Asian history in a single volume is probably a little of both. A Turning Wheel is Shaplen's magnum opus, an enormous work on his years as a correspondent in Asia. Like any sweeeping work, it has its ups and downs. If Shaplen's book is flawed by the sheer breadth of his topic, it is held together by the author's personal approach. But A Turning Wheel is also a strangely unfulfilling work, copious in its detail, but marred by its omission of China.
Shaplen takes an incredibly complex and far-reaching subject and molds it into a simple framework. In each of 11 chapters, he outlines the post-World War Two history of an Asian nation. A longtime writer for The New Yorker, Shaplen's chapters are in-depth articles, examining phases of development within the context of the author's experiences. The author knows his story well, though he explains events and people in almost frustrating detail at times.
Shaplen emphasizes the United States' failures in any number of Asian revolutions, offering candid assessments of people and policies that contributed to our mistakes. His chapters on the Indochinese nations, particularly Vietnam and Cambodia, are especially effective. He reminisces colorfully on Saigon under siege and the atrocities of Pol Pot's regime but does not limit himself to narrative. In the section entitled, "Why the Americans Failed," he writes:
Washington either should have used the leverage it had to force reforms more strongly or, once the Vietnamese proved incapable of putting their house in order and fighting a successful counterinsurgency war against the Communists, should have reduced its aid and refrained from becoming more militarily involved...Certainly there was no chance to impose a Western democratic system on an antipathetic Asian framework or to blend American habits and customs with the far different and more elusive attributes of the Vietnamese.
Shaplen takes more dangerous risks when he abandons armchair criticisms and turns to present-day issues. He doesn't hesitate to discuss China's recent incursions into Vietnam, the refugee problem, or the Cambodian-Vietnamese situation. Lucid, insightful and delightfully straightforward, the author recounts the past and predicts the future. Shaplen is no dummy; when he doesn't know what will happen, he says so. On China, he writes, "No matter how many crystal balls one uses, it is patently impossible to foresee the future evolution of the Chinese Communist Party." Where a lesser writer would have struggled to find a trend, the seasoned journalist--whose 30 years experience has helped reveal the serious instabilities threatening every Asian nation--says what he feels.
At times, Shaplen sacrifices style for comprehensiveness, and A Turning Wheel degenerates into an encyclopedic rendition of facts and events. A tendency toward run-on sentences packed with references and acronyms may deter the novice. But if Shaplen has only written the encyclopedia of modern Asia, it is a reference work that is desperately needed. As one might expect, the author is at his best in relatively uncharted territory; the chapters on Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia are not only fascinating, but promise to fill gaps in most people's knowledge.
Shaplen takes an awesome expanse of history and personalizes it. A Turning Wheel is a giant reporter's notebook, crammed with essential details and one-of-a-kind observations. When he injects himself into the story--his feelings on seeing Nagasaki five hours after the bomb was dropped; his conversations with Mao and Marcos--the story comes to life.
Reviewing Shaplen's book is like reviewing 11 books: each chapter has a life of its own. On the Philippines. Shaplen is obsessed with Marcos; on Indonesia, he relies too heavily on economic figures rather than trends and on Korea, his history is hackneyed. But Shaplen surprises you when you least expect it. "More clearly than ever," he concludes, "the solution in Korea, difficult as it may be to achieve, remains unity, not two Koreas."
If there is one problem with this book, however, it is the chapter on China--problem, because Shaplen has decided not to write one. In his conclusion, where he assesses China's impact on the surrounding nations in a scant ten pages. Shaplen offers us a weak-kneed rationalization. To discuss the mainland, he insists, would require an entire book. But elsewhere, he eagerly tackles Japan in less than 100 pages and the Philipines in even fewer. While one might expect this--American reporters' access to the mainland has been extremely limited--it leaves a gaping hole. A Turning Wheel is subtitled "Three Decades of the Asian Revolution," but its author has omitted a discussion of the revolution that many believe has shaped the better part of the region's modern history.
But where Shaplen has chosen to write, he has done a spectacular job. For the expert on the Vietnam war or the student who has never heard of Kuala Lumpur. A Turning Wheel is required reading. Shaplen's ability to preach without being pretentious and to find the personal thread among the sweep of revolution is extraordinary. If his vision of Asia's future is hesitant, then he has learned more than most writers and journalists