Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review: River Town

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: River Town

Author: Peter Hessler

Date: 2001

Publisher: Harper Collins

Length: 402 pages of text, 16-page update (I have the 2006 paperback edition)

ISBN: 0060855029

Quote: "This isn't a book about China. It's about a certain small part of China at a certain brief period in time."

Specifically it's about the town called Fuling, which is close to the city currently called Chongqing, although, perhaps as part of a policy of deliberate confusion, at some periods in history Fuling was also called Chongqing, and other names. And it's about the two years Peter Hessler spent teaching English literature as a Peace Corps volunteer at the local college.

And, because of this narrow, specific focus, it's a delightful read. It's not a novel; what it has in the way of a plot is that Hessler wants to learn to speak Chinese well enough to be able to talk to people and write down the stories they tell him, and gradually, over time, he does.

He's very much under surveillance as a source of dissent and potential political problems. The stories he's told reflect people's awareness of this surveillance by the ruling party, as well as their need to dumb down what they say so that their lovable, somewhat clownish, pet foreigner can understand. Nevertheless he hears some lively stories from some likable people.

Though not really a naturalist, Hessler is sensitive to natural beauty...and the destruction thereof in a rather poor community where people want to exploit every resource they can. He notes the flowers, the crops (Fuling produces both rice and wheat, alternately, on labor-intensive terraced mountainsides), and also the coal smoke in the air. At first he blames his deteriorating health on the coal smoke and the stress of living in crowded conditions. Before the first year's over, however, he'll be told that he's picked up tuberculosis and several other infections. He enjoys the scenic rivers that define Fuling, and worries about the planned dam that will, if and when it's built, flood most of the town, destroying the historic carvings on the high banks and who knows what else.

Despite the infections and the antibiotics that keep them at bay, he's still a young man. During the first year he runs for exercise, despite the pain in his sinuses and the hostile young people (of both sexes) who taunt him when he passes by. He's persuaded to enter a foot race against local people; older people say it's good for the local youth that he beats them, because it will drive them to try harder, but he has some misgivings. By his final school term, he's learned enough Chinese to beat a mean drunk in a verbal abuse game--and be hustled out of the bar by friends who worry that the drunk may be gathering reinforcements to escalate to a physical brawl.

Although Hessler is now married, and his wife has a Chinese name, there's not much romance in River Town. There is, instead, a lot of support for the policy many international volunteers are asked to adopt, of remaining celibate if not placed with an existing partner overseas. Young, single Americans are often seen as prizes, especially by those who, for good and sufficient reasons, are least likely to find either romance or money in their own communities. Every returned volunteer has a couple of stories like those Hessler shares, about the lonely older lady who tries to attract him with the offer of guidance and good advice, and the leader of a pack of barflies who just plain harass him.

There's not much overt romance among the students, either. One thing River Town brings out is the way socialism-as-a-substitute-for-religion systematically tries to flatten out individual emotions that might lead to dissent. Hessler's students are attracted to each other, but so shy of mentioning it that when they act out plays they insist on letting same-sex buddies read the parts of couples. On the road trips he takes during breaks, Hessler reports seeing a couple board a crowded train, apparently agreeing to share a bunk as strangers who can safely sleep back to back since the car is packed with older people, and then keep everyone awake by acting like a couple; he also meets a couple who admit they're married to each other, but, when they think everyone else is asleep, open a private conversation with what seems to be an established joke--"Who are you?" A girl who has become pregnant can't just quit school and get married; she commits suicide.

In some parts of Asia religious feeling was even more harshly suppressed by the ChiComs, but Hessler, who is Catholic, finds a Chinese priest who was penalized but not tortured or killed during the Mao years. The old priest's story is well worth reading.

Even the feelings people have about their homeland are suppressed, Hessler finds, when students write about the dam. Yes, some of their and their friends' homes, businesses, scenic attractions will be destroyed; even animal populations may be wiped out by the planned flooding of most of Fuling...but "We do not avoid eating for fear of choking," so many students parrot that Hessler starts to hate the words.

Who should read River Town? Judging by the way it's sold, probably anyone who's not already read it. Especially those who are interested in doing overseas volunteer work, or funding it; and those who are interested in China; and those who still think the world can afford to continue any "dialogue" on the subject of socialism--or think totalitarian government and Greenness can coexist. For that group it will be an eye-opener. Come to think of it, this book will also be an eye-opener for those who doubt that factual stories can be as well written and entertaining as fiction.

If you e-mail to buy it from me, you'll pay $5 for the book, $5 for shipping, which is probably about as good a price as anybody at Amazon is willing to give you for a clean copy. This includes a royalty payment of $1 to Peter Hessler (or his favorite charity). Once again, Hessler's only online presence seems to be Facebook, and if a reader who uses Facebook will kindly connect him with us, any payments made through the Books You Can Buy From Me program will reach him or his charity faster.