That Undisclosed World: Eric Shipton’s Mountains of Tartary (1950).

Westaway, Jonathan orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-4479-3490 (2014) That Undisclosed World: Eric Shipton’s Mountains of Tartary (1950). Studies in Travel Writing, 18 (4). pp. 357-373. ISSN 1364-5145

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Mountains of Tartary (1950) recounts Eric Shipton’s mountaineering and travels in Xinjiang during his two postings as British Consul-General in Kashgar in the 1940s. An accomplished Himalayan mountaineer of the 1930s, Shipton was a successful author of mountaineering travel books. During the 1930s his work with the Survey of India saw him increasingly drawn into the workings of the imperial security state in the geopolitically sensitive border regions of the Karakoram. Shipton’s proven ability to travel in arduous mountain terrain and gather geographical intelligence led to his posting to Kashgar. Details of his diplomatic work are almost entirely absent from Mountains of Tartary and only became known in outline in 1969, with the publication of his autobiography. With unparalleled knowledge of the geo-political situation in Xinjiang in the 1940s, Shipton was prevented from publishing anything that revealed the details of his role in Great Game politics in 1950, not least by the fact that he still held a consular position in Kunming, Yunnan. Thus at the heart of Mountains of Tartary is an occlusion. This paper will examine the rhetorical strategies Shipton employed in writing a book in which so much had to remain undisclosed. He was aware that the roles he played, as mountaineer, explorer and traveller had multiple meanings on the borders of British India, that to situate his narrative within an Orientalist and Great Game tradition risked unwanted disclosure. The essential unreliability of the narrative emerges as a consequence of writing under such constraints. Intentionally aporetic, the text is riven by chronological and biographical voids, unintentionally reveals the strain of inhabiting multiple personas and keeping track of the competing demands of different audiences. Shipton’s failure of self-censorship erupts in transgressive revelations, concealed messages to certain sections of his readership able to read between the lines, revealing Mountains of Tartary to be a steganographic text, one that needs not just decoding but looking beyond, to what is undisclosed and unsaid.

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