Tuesday, July 1, 2008

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
by Peter Hessler
John Murray Paperbacks, 402pp.
ISBN 0-7195-6480-8

Travel literature today is the drained province of ‘rad’ snowboarders, contemplative chefs in Tuscany, gimmick artists with a story to grind, and a horde of d-grade wits who bring us snapshots of the world with plenty of yuks per page, conquistadors of irony devouring cultures in the name of their one true god, the lifestyle magazine.

Its authors are usually all men whose final report is there’s nothing new under the sun but themselves. It sells by the truckload, and given the oddly talented exception - outstanding figures who are so imitated they begin to imitate themselves as badly as their copyists (P.J. O’Rourke and Bill Bryson spring woefully to mind) - it is all niche marketing crap.

And yet there’s another side to the genre re-emerging: a melding of classical discipline and poetic natural observation in the grand line of Peter Matthiessen and Barry Lopez, along with evolving literary voices that hybridize memoir, history, reportage and a serious reflective ambition for what travel writing can do. This more committed groundswell – and there’s no other word for it but ‘committed’ - puts the best travel writing at the forefront of a renaissance in non-fiction storytelling just when it felt like the world was being horribly plundered all over again for the so-called Information Age.

Peter Hessler is certainly one of those writers who restore your faith in the travel genre’s revelatory potential, even its nobility. His book River Town documents the two years he spent as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching literature at a teachers’ college in Fuling, a small “by Chinese standards” town of some two hundred thousand people in the Sichuan province.

When he arrives in late 1996, “No Americans had lived there for half a century.” By story’s end he has won a local marathon race, mastered Mandarin, had a student commit suicide, been assaulted by a mob, struggled through classes on everybody from Shakespeare to Helen Keller and a Marxist version of Robin Hood, dealt with the bureaucratic absurdities of censorship and learnt a few things about “the Chinese smile” and the life that underlines it under Communist rule.

Subtitled ‘Two Years on the Yangtze’, Hessler’s book does this all quietly, assuming a detailed authority and flow that finally sweeps you away, whether he is dealing with local characters, Chinese history or the natural landscape and the many ways they intersect and impress their identity upon him. There’s something reasonable and true about Hessler’s subdued tone that grows on you page after page as he does this, an unhurried and precise quality to his prose, with subtly poetic turns that surprise you when they emerge.

In noting that Fuling is located at a junction between the Wu and the Yangtze Rivers, one blue and clear, the other a dirty brown, Hessler describes them as meeting “like two slivers of painted glass”. In discussing their pace and character he goes on to say, “The Yangtze in its size and majesty seems to be going somewhere important, while the Wu in its narrow swiftness seems to have come from some place wild and mysterious; and the faint forms of its distant hills suggest that the river will keep its secrets. You can fish all day long and the Wu will give you nothing.”

Hessler grieves for the damming of the Yangtze and the coming changes to Fuling life, let alone the drowned cities and landscapes that are all upriver from the monumental Three Gorges Project. But he also recognizes the strength of local needs (“Cold was like hunger; it had a way of simplifying everything”) and a stoicism – both impressive and frustrating - born out of “the ashes of the Cultural Revolution” and a century of constant, savage change in China. As Teacher Kong tells him when Hessler asks what people in Fuling think of the Three Gorges Project, “Well… the boats will all float, so they will be fine.”

In resisting a waiguoren (“people from outside the country”) tendency to see things in black and white, Hessler colours his book with a self-critical voice that opens up issues of how we engage with other cultures. Even so, the damming of the river finally lurks as a metaphysical crime in his imagination: “to turn the river into a lake – for some reason that bothered me more than anything else… I couldn’t explain it other than that they [rivers] were meant to rush forward; that was their essential nature.”

This feeling imbues River Town with a vaguely elegiac character. It is, of course, a diary of his time, and as such it also has the flavor of remembrance, of the past as another country. And yet its freshness and intimacy signal China’s unique vitality, the human torrent that can inspire or overwhelm. With this book Hessler gives the torrent a face, the history a meaning and a heart one could almost call ‘home’.

- Mark Mordue

* First published SMH Spectrum, August 31, 2002, then 12gauge.com (USA) in late 2002.