January 8th, 2012


Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

According to my reading list, I completed this book on December 1st of last year. That feels like quite a long time ago, and I can't say that searching my memory has yielded an incredibly nuanced narrative review. But I still will try to do something.

My overall sense of the book is that it's too disjointed. Hessler is trying to string together ~4 different narratives across a broad spectrum of Chinese society, switching back and forth from chapter to chapter. At the end of the book, I wasn't sure that the stories had much to say to each other: the story of the scholar that committed suicide after the "Great Leap Forward" and the story of poor migrant teachers from Sichuan don't really interact. 

The framing device is Hessler's life, as he either pursues information about the scholar, corresponds with his former students, or the like. So, while the chapters all have title headings and a certain subject, there is also a sense of chronology: what happens to him first usually occurs earlier in the book. The problem I have with that is while it occasionally does lead to some good insights, Hessler also winds up as an alien: he isn't, and can't be, Chinese, but he isn't an American anymore, either. He's caught in this lonely area between, and as much as I like privacy, I don't know that I can understand that position, especially not seeking it out as he does. 

But, as mentioned, the book has a lot of redeeming stuff, too. I think a lot of his insights, especially about Chinese bureaucracy and nationalism, are spot on. Perhaps the highlight of this is fairly early on, when he chases and beats up a man that breaks into his hotel room: afterwards, the chinese authorities insist it must have been a child or wasted drug addict, because they don't want to admit that some foreigner beat up a healthy chinese man. 

Also interesting is the archeological information he collects about China's past, and serves as both the titular draw and the liner notes, periodically injecting itself while usually remaining in the background. He's also very conscious of how China is using, or trying to use, that history. 

So, as I've done with some books before, this one ends up neutral. Reviewers seem to love it, but I can't say I share their enthusiasm.