River Town

by Peter Hessler 
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner  

    In examining Peter Hessler's excellent memoir, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtzee, with its theme of slowly dawning cross cultural understanding, it seems peculiarly appropriate to briefly recall its predecessor of thirty years, I Saw Red China: Candid, Revealing Notes on Life Behind the Bamboo Curtain Today, By the First Staff Newspaperwoman Ever To Enter Red China, by Lisa Hobbs.

    No one can doubt, from the title on down, that some meaningful degree of change in the western perception of China, and vice versa, has occurred between the publication of I Saw Red China and River Town. I Saw Red China was published in 1966 on the eve of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. China was closed to the west, and American Lisa Hobbs basically snuck into a guided tour due to her dual citizenship in Australia. Hobb's visit reads like an expose of a high security prison planet, which happened to house lots of precious artifacts.

    Peter Hessler came to China in 1996 to spend two years as a peace corp volunteer, teaching English literature and writing in Fuling, a small city of 200,000 in the Sichuan province. Knowledge of China had been slowly spreading outwards from Beijing since the Nixon presidency, but remote areas such as the three gorges district in Sichuan had remained outside western ken. Fuling, In fact, had not seen a westerner in more than fifty years.

    Hessler is an exceptionally good observer, his narrative voice carries with it a quiet, but firm self assessment that establishes both authority and intimacy with the reader. A strong topical organization allows the book=s underlying continuities to flow unimpeded though an array of concise subjects.

    Above all, Hessler's drive to understand the Chinese world around him in its own terms and language, a determination requiring a strong, but not inflexible sense of self to succeed, gives the book, a clarity, depth and warmth, which is both disarming and rare.

    Throughout the book Hessler avoids clinging to his predispositions. The lower portion of Fuling lies in the permanent flood zone of the impending Thee Gorges Dam, and one would think that the submersion of the town would dominate the Fuling mind. Yet, though surprised to find otherwise, Hessler is interested in observing rather than projecting upon his surroundings, and his discussion of the coming Dam is exceptional in its balance, its subtle dislocation of judgement for the purposes of understanding.

    There are many highlights and pleasures to be found. The interpretation of Shakespeare by his students, his victory in the Twenty-Second Annual Long Race To Welcome Spring, and his experience of The Chinese New Year at the home of a restaurant owner, stand out particularly.

    Yet, the primary element of River Town lies in its capturing of the intersection of millennia old custom, tradition and history, with the protracted and continual presence of rapid change. In Fuling even the Yangtzee river, the living emblem of both continuity and flow, awaits being turned into a four hundred mile lake.