It sounds almost too extraordinary to be true: a Kiwi advertising executive makes a pilgrimage across the byways of China, where tourists are rarely seen, and tracks down a long lost son of Mao Tse Tung.
But then Richard Loseby, the advertising executive in question, has form for doing extraordinary things. His other two books, set primarily in Afghanistan, are among the best travel books I've read, and I've read a lot of them.
For the record, Loseby was born in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; grew up in Australia and moved to New Zealand when he was 8. In 1980, he ventured into advertising as a copywriter, working in London from 1985 to 1993 before returning to Auckland.
His first book told of his terrifying journey alone across war-torn Afghanistan. The equally remarkable second is about his return to that benighted land to find out what happened to a young Afghan who befriended him.
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So it is entirely believable that a couple of chance encounters - one with a schoolteacher in a tea house in a dusty town in western China, the other with an advertising agency receptionist and part-time dancer in a dubious nightclub in Bangkok - should lead to him setting off on another adventure. The inspiration for this latest quest is the tale told by both of how at the start of the Long March, Mao tse Tung and his third wife He Zizhen left behind their son, Little Mao, because he would have hindered their flight from the Nationalist forces.
Loseby chooses to follow the route of the Long March in reverse, thus reaching the place where Little Mao is most likely to be found at the end of his journey rather than at the beginning, a device which allows him to visit a side of China still largely unknown in the West.
At the end of the quest he does indeed find his holy grail - well, probably - in the shape of a retired traffic police chief who all but acknowledges that he is the abandoned son of the Great Helmsman. Loseby helps this tortured soul find peace by passing on some research showing that his mother, He Zizhen, who was later dumped by Mao herself, never stopped mourning her lost boy. And he also promises not to tell the story until Little Mao is dead, a promise he kept.
The quest for Little Mao takes us to a forgotten part of China where we meet fascinating people - from a giant ex-basketballer to a smooth sanitation expert and from a journalist dying of cancer to a bright school girl - who tell us what ordinary Chinese really think about Mao, the Long March, the Cultural Revolution, capitalism with Chinese characteristics and all the other great events which have reshaped their country. It's a delight to read.
A BOY OF CHINA: IN SEARCH OF MAO'S LOST SON
(Harper Collins, $37)
by Richard Loseby