Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip (P.S.) (英語) ペーパーバック – 2011/2/8
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One of The Economist's Best Books of the Year
From the bestselling author of Oracle Bones and River Town comes the final book in his award-winning trilogy on the human side of the economic revolution in China.
Peter Hessler, whom the Wall Street Journal calls "one of the Western world's most thoughtful writers on modern China," deftly illuminates the vast, shifting landscape of a traditionally rural nation that, having once built walls against foreigners, is now building roads and factory towns that look to the outside world.
“A fascinating road trip through a land in transition. . . . Hessler’s description of China’s new drivers is hilarious. . . . Country Driving tells us as much about contemporary China even when Hessler is not on the road.” (The Christian Science Monitor)
“The best yet from Peter Hessler, whose two earlier books, River Town and Oracle Bones, were exemplary forays into the genre. . . . Told with his characteristic blend of empathy, insight, and self-deprecating humor.” (Time)
“Peter Hessler, a modern Marco Polo crossing China in a rented Jeep Cherokee, has witnessed signs and wonders worthy of a Coen brothers film. . . . Every so often, I read a book that upends my perceptions about a place. This is one of them.” (Bloomberg News)
“Hessler has made a career of interpreting contemporary China and, for my money, nobody does it better. . . . Hessler is a magnificent guide to this largely uncharted territory, witty, insightful, keenly aware of the ironies of this communist-capitalist society.” (The Minneapolis Star Tribune)
“If you want to understand today’s China, and the forces changing it, you need to read Country Driving.” (The Huffington Post)
“Hessler is a keen observer of mind-catching details and an engaging storyteller. . . . Full of exotic detail, solid reporting, and ironic observation, Country Driving offers a personal snapshot of the world’s second superpower hurtling through the 21st century.” (The Boston Globe)
“Lively. . . . Engaging. . . . Hessler sets out with some suspect maps and a great deal of bravado. . . . He shows the effects China’s ever expanding network of roads exerts on individual lives. . . . Hessler [has an] irresistible urge to follow a story.” (The New York Times Book Review)
“Delightful. . . . Epic. . . . The reporting in Country Driving is impressive in its scope. . . . Hessler delivers eloquent disquisitions on everything from how to buy a used car in China to the history of the Mongol conquest.” (Dwight Garner, The New York Times)
“Hessler’s genius has always been in his wry commentary and ability to transcribe the rhythms of his environment onto the page. . . . From this cast of thousands emerges a picture of great hopes tinged with sadness at what is being cast aside without second thought.” (The Wall Street Journal)
“Extraordinary. . . . Country Driving, like Hessler’s previous works, tells the story of China’s transformation powerfully and poetically.” (The Economist)
I was quite disappointed by Oracle Bones, which I found to be too drawn out, often boring and had Hessler writing to much as a know-it-all. In cCuntry Driving he regained some of his balance and I'm happy to say it's more like River Town than Oracle Bones. The book consists of three parts. The first part deals with Hessler getting his driving license (including samples of the hilarious test questions) and driving along the Great Wall. I consider this the best part of the book with many funny stories and good humour and some information about Chinese regions you don't often come across.
I had expected the whole book to be like a travelogue, not unlike Rob Gifford's more serious China Road, but this (unfortunately) did not prove to be the case. The second and third part of the book find Hessler grounded in the small village of Sancha, north of Beijing, and a facotry for bra rings in Zhejiang. As such, the title of the book is a bit misleading.
The second part of the book, about the village on Sancha is my least favourite. The story mostly deals with one family and thereby the book shifts from the wide perspective of a roadtrip in the first part to the microcosm of a Chinese rural family. That's all fine but it does so in too much detail and I found myself getting impatient with the continuous story about a handful of people. I also found Hessler's writing to be walking a thin line between humorous admirating and derision at times.
The third part, about the Zhejiang factory, is more interesting again. Besides the workings of a factory in all it's facets - including having to deal with workers, government officials and competition - it also gives a glimpse of what China's economic development was like after the turn of the century. This makes for more interesting reading than the life of one rural family as far as I'm concerned.
All in all this is a step back in the right direction for Hessler after the disappointing Oracle Bones.
A note on the audio book: like Oracle Bones this audio book is narrated by Peter Berkrot, who I didn't like much in Oracle Bones because of his dreadful pronounciation of Chinese and silly voices whenever he read out dialogue by a Chinese person. Berkrot has improved is pronounciation somewhat for this book and his silly voices are a bit less exreme, though not fully absent in his rendition of Country Driving.
Country Driving by Peter Hessler does not lack these criticisms. It’s an account of Hessler's experiences driving a rental car through the country, first following the Great Wall to the desolate Gansu province, then to a rural village north of Beijing, and finally, to the Zhejiang in south, the land of emerging factories. At each leg of his journey, Hessler integrates into some facet of the local community, putting him in a position to explore the effects of rapid development at a very personal level.
The criticisms that Hessler includes stem from an American accustomed to different conditions, and to be fair, they aren’t really presented as criticisms. Hessler describes insane driving conditions or guanxi, the Chinese form of networking, where business men and political officials lavish gifts in exchange for leniency, and his subtle sense of humor pries the ridiculousness out. It’s effective - some of the scenes made me cringe, touching on my sensitivity.
But any book full of criticisms, no matter how skillfully presented, is not much of a read. Country Driving is much more. For one, Hessler is a brilliant writer. His sentences are fluid, and he is a master at the thought provoking sentence to end a chapter. Combined with his eye (and ear) for important details, he packs insights to the Chinese way of life into memorable scenes: a peasant family venturing into Beijing to care for their sick child, a young girl celebrating her sixteenth birthday after a full day - 10 hours - of factory work. I could tell how much of China Hessler absorbed during his stay there, and I’m grateful that he translated his experiences from spoken Chinese all the way to beautifully written English.
I suspect that much of my affinity for this book comes from my ability to relate. I visited China every summer with my family from 2004 to 2008, which overlaps with the period that Hessler spent there. As I was younger, I was less tolerant to certain aspects: the trash, the rampant pollution, the suffocating heat, the sheer overpopulation. But reading this book made me want to visit China again, to be in that land of inescapable heritage and unprecedented change.
Hessler now lives in the Middle East as a correspondent. I hope he writes about his experiences there as well. I won’t be able to pronounce the names as effortlessly as I can with his books about China, but I already know I will read everything he writes.