The Japanese invaders were the first to penetrate this great arboreal wilderness, through which, ten years before, they had cut a track wide enough to take a single car. In this interval seedling trees, some ten feet tall, had sprung up, spacing themselves with mathematical regularity, the problem now being to avoid them or hack them down. Over the millennia the jungle had established its patterns and its order. Seen first at a distance, the tall, slender trees with their quite smooth trunks appeared as a plantation, seeming even to have provided themselves with some device eliminating the presence of weeds. They shot up to the roof of the jungle where they put out a parasol of branches trailing ropes of immaculate orchids. At the apex of the parasol it was normal for an enormous hornbill to perch. Hawks, all of the same breed, swayed on the tops of the bamboos growing at the edge of the forest. Once in a while a boar came trotting down the track, kicking up deep purple butterflies as it went. Everything in the jungle had submitted to a discipline. It was our good fortune here to see the world as it would have been tens of thousands of years ago, and our contact with it was all the closer and more intimate after a car-crash forced us to walk a number of miles before reaching an army outpost, where we picked up a lift to our destination.

Our experience of the vanishing tribes inhabiting this region was even more memorable than that of the unspoiled rain forest. Besides buffalo-worshippers there were twenty or thirty versions of the supposedly Malayo-Polynesian people known as the Mois in the mountains and forest of central Vietnam, and Dr Juin, the expert on the subject with whom I spent several days, believed they had been there almost as long as the trees themselves. There were a number of unusual features in their culture, one being that they succeeded in fitting the population of a substantial village, comfortably and hygienically, into a single long-house, which might be up to 150 yards in length. Juin, who had studied the Mois for thirty years and written a number of learned books on their life-style, claimed that they possessed an unequalled racial memory, recorded in sagas, a study of which he said threw a unique light on man’s existence in pre-historic times. Although such information must have been fascinating, I was more impressed by Juin’s investigations relating to our day, and above all by his contention that although, as in most primitive societies, crimes as we understand them were few, in this case not only did the Mois not commit crimes but conceptions of right and wrong seemed quite incomprehensible to them. In their place – and incidentally governing conduct by the most rigid standards – were notions of what was expedient and what was inexpedient. The Mois, he said, were concerned with policy rather than justice. Piety had no place in their ritual observations. Contrition was meaningless, and there was no moral condemnation in Moi folklore of those who committed anti-social acts.

Norman Lewis : The World, The World pp 57-58 (Picador, 1996)


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