Peter Hessler and I started out in the wrong voice – literally. I stuck River Town (the first of Hessler’s “China Trilogy,” made up of River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving) in my ears and nearly threw the iPod off the cliffs in the first half hour alone.
The narration, as performed by Peter Berkrot – a veteran reader of many, many titles, including, most unfortunately the entire Hessler trilogy – is, in a word, a travesty. Berkrot is not only unfamiliar with Chinese, he’s convinced that the Chinese speaker can only be vocally represented in some varying degree of ching-chong-ese. To quote a fellow irate listener from the audible.com site, “… nobody butchers like Berkrot.” No understatement there!
Please allow me to digress and share a few Cardinal Rules for Audiobook Producers:
- Cast for narrators who have SOME knowledge of the language they will be reading. English is often not enough.
- If you’re too lazy to cast an accurate net, then at least make ONE phone call to a native speaker of the language your reader needs to narrate, and ask for pronunciation guidance. For most languages, you can find millions of native speakers.
- If you won’t pick up the phone, many websites offer pronunciation guidance, available 24/7.
- If you can’t be bothered with any of the above, get out of the business. Please.
I did manage to hold onto my iPod (barely), and that tenacity was duly rewarded because River Town is an enlightening, entertaining, even enthralling condensation of Hessler’s two years spent teaching English and American literatures as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small town along the Yangtze River (before it would be partially flooded by the Three Gorges Dam). In 1996, at age 26 with Princeton and Oxford degrees well-earned, Hessler’s arrival in China fulfills his grandfather’s unrealized plan of becoming a priestly missionary in China two generations earlier. Hessler and a fellow American-teacher-to-be named Adam quickly become the only foreigners in town. Almost immediately, Hessler understands that the cultural, social, and political divides run deep, but his adventurous attitude and his necessary humor help ford the gap between his relatively privileged college students, as well as the less-than-educated locals.
Hessler learns to drink (and eventually realizes when not to), experiences the joy of connecting with his students with adopted English names that vary from Barbara (as in Bush) to Armstrong (for Neil) to Yellow and even Lazy, earns himself lasting notoriety after winning the 22nd Annual Long Race to Welcome Spring, endures his foreigner status although not always with patience or grace, and forms heartfelt bonds even when relationships with the waiguoren (foreigners) are officially discouraged, if not prohibited.
His dedication to learning Mandarin (thanks to two tutors with very different teaching styles!) rewards him with intimate access to many of the locals who are more than willing to share meals, stories, even their families. By acquiring language, he earns his Chinese identity as Ho Wei – “My Chinese name had no connection to my American name, and the person who became Ho Wei had no real connection to my American self. There was an enormous freedom in that …” Ho Wei always carries a notebook into which he records the words and conversations that define his Chinese life, then leaves it for Hessler to type everything into his computer.
Hessler turns Ho Wei’s notebook into a nuanced, multi-layered memoir of how a ‘stranger-in-a-strange-land’ comes to better understand himself by understanding others. To best understand for yourself, keep that iPod turned off, open to the first page … and let this river take you on a most memorable journey indeed.
Tidbit: One quibble I must share … So the use of the phrase “chink in the armor” in February of this year in reference to basketball star Jeremy Lin (who happens to be of Chinese descent) got an ESPN reporter fired and an ESPN commentator suspended for 30 days. On page 343 of the hardcover, Hessler uses almost the same phrase, commenting about the Chinese propensity to fill photo albums only with pictures of themselves: “For a people known for modesty it always struck me as an odd chink in their armor, a sudden burst of narcissism …” Hmmm … so it’s buried within 416 pages (or 14.5 hours if you’re slogging through Berkrot), but I certainly was jolted at the comment.
Tidbit2: Hessler’s Chinese monthly salary of 1000 yuan (almost $120 at the time) – his salary of constant, common interest to all throughout his two years – has grown exponentially: a decade after publication of River Town, Hessler was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, Class of 2011, which comes with a $500,000 grant (paid quarterly over five years), absolutely no strings attached!