This is a review of a travel book, reproduced from Cherwell, written by my friend Nico Hobhouse about his year-long journey in China.
Devising a travel novel that people actually want to read is tough. It’s clearly necessary to communicate the great and the good; the bad and the ugly, sure. However a discourse that is solely descriptive, even in beautiful prose, can get tedious. ‘What I did on my holidays’ is nice enough for an article, but downright dull for a book. Nico Hobhouse, a second-year Classicist at Trinity, is therefore wise in his attempt to marry colourful description with spirited polemic in his self-published book Dancing on the Frontier: Travels by Land through China and Tibet.
Dullness is absolutely not Hobhouse’s problem. Some randy passages hit you like a bus, especially since they come from nowhere. Fresh from describing a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, Chapter 11 takes a sudden and inexplicably lewd turn: “Down one narrow alley I spotted two donkeys rutting. The female seemed less eager and pulled away. The male trotted after her, his member still primed to go…The poor jenny was having a rough day.” These entertaining but stand-alone remarks are far from atypical. More than once the reader is thrown off the scent of what he thinks is an emerging theme by a slightly wacky observation.
The paragraphs are short and fairly punchy; it is an easy read (mostly: I confess to having to look up ‘somnolent’) though the images Hobhouse evokes are nonetheless vivid and varied. However the overall effect is diminished by numerous typos and an episodic structure that leaves the passages disjointed. And once in a while the language is a bit clumsy: in one instance he suggests that the ‘lack of [political] openess in China…is as alive as ever.’ Can an absense of something be alive? Probably not. It’s one of the areas in which self-publishing – otherwise a fantastic blessing for first-time authors – falls down.
The typical passage – which provides an original story followed by a fascinating insight – works well. There is a well-scripted section about his experience of the visceral antipathy felt by otherwise sophisticated Chinese urbanites against the Japanese. Staying in Nanjing, the sight of a brutal massacre at the hands of Imperial Japan in 1937, Hobhouse movingly describes the sensation of Western guilt as “more powerful that disgust at what I saw. I felt ashamed that I had not known about the incident before I had come to China. The scale and horror of the massacre were comparable to the Holocaust and yet I had never really cared back home in England.”
Occasionally though the formula breaks down; the weakest parts of the book generally crop up when it does. Anecdotal, albeit unusual, tit bits are used to draw predictable and not especially profound conclusions: “I saw two toads copulating – a reminder that early spring was approaching – and reflected that nature was losing out in a big way to China’s urbanisation.” Ew. Is this really what Hobhouse, observing the amphibian fornication, thought at the time? Or is he indulging in a bit of post hoc analysis that matches up his travelling experiences to the well-established assertions commonly bandied about in The Economist?
By contrast the strongest sections occur when he is more modest in his ambition. Sharing a minibus, with an elderly monk, trundling through Tibet Hobhouse recounts the monk’s contradictory behaviour. “The senior of the two took out some prayer beads…[A]fter chanting for a long time he took a few swigs from his bottle of water. When he had finished, to my astonishment, he casually tossed the empty bottle out of the window. He had a fake Tissot wristwatch…and a mobile phone on which he took my photo.” The reader does not need to be explicitly told what Hobhouse is implying: that the monk’s contradictions betray a disconcerting truth about modern China. The effect is immensely satisfying.
One final groan: Hobhouse clearly takes his liberalism seriously. From Bautou to Beijing, Shanghai to Lhasa, he strikes up an argument about the virtues of Western democracy vs. authoritarian capitalism with just about every poor chap he meets. Each time he presents the dispute fairly crudely, though given the fact that he had to conduct these Socratic dialogues in Mandarin we can forgive him for that. The issue is rather that when it comes to the book he keeps banging on about it without saying anything new each time. Travelling alone, off the beaten track, meeting bucolic village folk who had perhaps never spoken to a white man before, Hobhouse’s account really should have been stronger in explaining how China understands itself, as well as the world it will shortly dominate.
Yet the final result is really quite impressive. Hobhouse has taken a year of his life that is tough to characterise in any one definitive way, and has turned it into a thoroughly readable, thoughtful and playful journal. Were he to write a second travel book, as I am told he is planning to, I suspect he would avoid most of the mistakes made in Dancing on the Frontier. Through it Hobhouse has nonetheless cultivated an authentic tone and an inquiring style that will serve him well into the future.