A tall tale in a cup
The troubled world of book publishing has become almost wearily accustomed to receiving yet more bad news of a critically acclaimed memoir that turns out to have been partly or entirely fabricated.world Updated: Apr 23, 2011 23:35 IST
The troubled world of book publishing has become almost wearily accustomed to receiving yet more bad news of a critically acclaimed memoir that turns out to have been partly or entirely fabricated.
But rarely has there been anything quite as spectacular as this week’s fall from grace of Greg Mortenson, author of the wildly successful and until now highly revered memoir Three Cups of Tea.
The scale of Mortenson’s tumble is partly amplified by the dizzy heights that he occupied in the realms of both publishing and philanthropy. Three Cups of Tea, his account of how he came to dedicate his life to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, has sold 4 million copies and remained in the New York Times bestseller list for more than four years.
The Central Asia Institute, which he founded on the back of the book to promote the educational causes he espouses, has attracted funding of almost $60 million, in no small part from the donations of his deeply moved readers, including Barack Obama, who gave $100,000 from his Nobel prize winnings.
Another of those smitten readers was fellow adventurer and author Jon Krakauer, who was so moved he donated $75,000 to CAI. But Krakauer then grew suspicious of the story and began his own investigation.
Note to budding writers: if you have to choose an assailant who attacks your literary integrity, let it not be Jon Krakauer.
He went at it like a CSI detective, writing his own 89-page ebook with an accompanying expose on the CBS show 60 Minutes. Krakauer tears apart the narrative core of Mortenson’s book, beginning with his claim that after a failed attempt to scale the mountain K2 in 1993 he stumbled into the Pakistani village of Korphe, where locals saved his life, gave him sustenance and inspired him to give something back by devoting himself to building schools there.
The problem, Krakauer says, is that none of that happened. “The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact,” he says.
Questions have also been raised about the charity side of Mortenson’s hero status, with the revelation that only 41% of CAI’s income in 2009 was spent in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Many in Pakistan who feature in Three Cups of Tea spoke about how the book sharply conflicts with their recollection of events.
Badam Gul said that the American had been an honoured guest in his home in the Laddah area of South Waziristan, not held hostage by Taliban, as Mortenson had suggested in the book. Gul said: “We are not rich people, but we did our best to make his stay comfortable.” In his book, Mortenson describes the tribesmen he met — who were from the Mahsud clan, though he wrongly calls them Wazir tribesmen — as continually smoking hashish and eating meat like wild animals.
Gul said that while there might be some hash smokers in Waziristan, as in any society, it was taboo to smoke in public as Mortenson describes. He thought that they were portrayed as “barbarians”.
In the book, Mortenson describes how the Taliban held him captive for eight days but then released him. Gul said that there were no Taliban in Waziristan until 2002, when they fled across the border from Afghanistan after the US-led invasion of the country.
Those views are echoed by Mansur Khan Mahsud, who was one of the men featured in a photograph of Mortenson’s “abductors” used in his second book, Stones into Schools.
“It is lies from A to Z. There’s not one word of truth. If there had been a little exaggeration, that could have been forgiven,” said Mahsud, the research director of a thinktank in Islamabad that specialises in the tribal area. Mahsud said that he had decided to file a lawsuit against Mortenson.
Also considering suing Mortenson is Mohammad Ali Changazi, a mountain trekking tour operator in northern Pakistan, where the American built his first schools. Changazi’s “scheming and dishonesty” is described at length in Three Cups of Tea. Changazi, speaking by satellite phone from Everest base camp, said that he had largely carried out some of the charitable works in Skardu that Mortenson had claimed sole credit for.
Mortenson has so far largely avoided responding to the allegations, saying through intermediaries that he has been admitted to hospital for an operation relating to a heart complaint.
In the interview he admits to a certain amount of “compression of events” and literary licence. Passing the buck to his co-author, David Relin he said, “If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions, and ... I don’t know, what’s that called?” Krakauer thinks he knows.
He has called his ebook Three Cups of Deceit.