RIVER TOWN
BY PETER HESSLER, HARPERCOLLINS, $26


The author arrives at Fuling — a dirty backwater port on China’s Yangtze River — as a 27-year-old Peace Corpsman sent to teach English literature and American culture in a provincial teachers’ college. This eloquent and moving account of two years in Fuling raises several questions: Just who is the teacher here, and who the student? And what is being taught?

Hessler quickly learns that behind the façade of official friendliness, the Party is manipulating him and his fellow corpsmen. A student production of Don Quixote is shut down for political incorrectness, and his class cannot view slides of his friend’s Wisconsin farm. Chinese faculty members are quietly warned against mixing with the waiguoren — the foreigners.

So Hessler makes friends instead with Fuling’s ordinary people, including his students — mostly the children of humble rice farmers — who approach their Beowulf and Faulkner with a zeal that would shame American students. He hangs out with the owners of a noodle shop, with taxi drivers and shoe shiners, an itinerant portrait photographer, an aged Catholic priest, and peasants. He learns from his mistakes in dealing with the Chinese. And he recounts it well.

He comes to detest the Party apparatus — its narrowness and particularly its lack of humor. But the ordinary Chinese he cherishes, admires, and even understands. So, someday, may we all. 


CRIMES OF WAR
BY PETER HOGG, THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS/ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, $22.95


Crimes of War ponders the imponderable — namely, the Holocaust — from the point of view of both an elderly Canadian citizen who was once a Nazi killer and a young, cynical lawyer whose job it is to investigate and bring such people to justice.

The old man has terrible memories. He belonged — not entirely by choice — to one of the SS units that followed the German army across Russia, committing wholesale slaughter. He is guilty, and his life is more barren than the frozen steppes where he committed his atrocities.

Dennis Connor’s life is less simple and less bleak, but oddly meaningless. For him, the pursuit of an aging, dying war criminal becomes something more — and less — than a search for justice. Hogg’s novel is more compelling and disturbing than dozens of conventional mysteries where the question is whodunit. Here, the large, unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable question is: Why? — G.N.