Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Mongolian Progression....

Most books by Roy Chapman Andrews are interesting, but inexpensive. In his day he was a popular writer, and even early titles like Whale Hunting with Gun and Camera (!) and Camps and Trails in China are not too hard to find.

Not so The New Conquest of Central Asia. As it is the record of ten years of American Museum of Natural History expeditions, a huge book with many contributors, its usual price tag of around $650 is easy to understand, but hard to pay!

So when I found a not too battered ex- lib with a library binding and only three of its more than 200 plates missing, for $200, I grabbed it, I have never been happier with a book! Despite the rough condition a (tape on maps, stamps,  and library binding), it is a battered, still- magnificent treasure trove of everything Mongolian,  scientific and, yes, Colonial, in  early Twentieth Century Asian history.

Our house name for it is The Big Book of Mongolia, and we keep it on the coffee table rather than the library, where we can dig into it randomly when we have a minute to spare, finding everything from buildings I have been in (Gandan Monastery) to landscapes we, like they, drove through,  despite the absence  of roads. One of our friends in Ulan bataar, Nyamdorj, always drovenhis Mercedes limo across the steppes, stopping for us to get out and push the car through what would be considered blue--ribbon trout streams in Montana. I must ask Jonathan Hanson if the first AMNH expedition is the first one that used cars extensively -- they even had camels plants stashes of gas ahead of them! And, of course, I've touched the  fossils in the actual dinosaur's nest in Ulaan Bataar's museum, some of the first ones ever found.

The book's typical condition:
Driving in he twenties; Wolf, Chapman's dog, riding high
The frontispiece is one of the few remaining color plates,  but there were only 5, while there were hundreds of black and white illos . And I have always liked this map showing the relative sizes of the US and Mongolia, and even used a version in Eagle Dreams, but this one looked like it was situated too far South.
I was right.Here is the correct one, from Andrews' On the Trail of Ancient Man:
 The title of the last book gives a hint of irony too.The expeditions found MANY fossils, including important mammals (Chapman was to write some of his best accounts of finding them in his children's book, All About Strange Beasts of the Past, in 1956 -- it was the first of his books that I read. He also found the most important dinosaur fossils of all time, in beds that are still giving up fascinating fossils; without them, we might not have found the affinities of dinosaurs to birds as fast as we have. But they were looking for human fossils, all the time, and they never found any! They were certain humans had originated in Asia.

Until I read The New Conquest, I never realized that they had a great human paleontologist on board: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, the aristocratic, Jesuit paleontologist who indeed found one of the most important and iconic hominin fossils, the so-called Peking Man, on Dragon Bone hill near Beijing. It is now considered one of the first and most important fossils of Homo erectus. Or at least the castings made from it are. 

Pere Teilhard was an enigmatic man. His theology is abstruse and incomprehensible to me, though Father Bakewell respected it. My favorite of his books is Letters From a Traveler, accounts of his various diggings and wanderings. His life was novelistic, and two good novels have been written about him and the fate of  Peking Man. What is known is that the fossils were put on an America controlled train to be shipped out of the way of the invading Japanese, and they have never been seen again. The first, by Stephen Becker, is called The Blue-eyed Shan. It is a part of his Chinese trilogy, one of the oddest concepts for good books I've ever seen. In each, a newly decommissioned Marine who was, like Becker, born in China, engages in a series of adventures. In the first, The Chinese Bandit, adventure is the point. The book can be summed up as marine goes to China, marine is attacked by Chinese bandits, marine becomes The Chinese bandit. The second, The Last Mandarin, is a comedy, but a dark one; a caper book. The third, and I think the most profound, The Blue Eyed Shan,  is a tragedy; the bones end up in possession of a wild mountain tribe in Burma after they kill the protagonists. All three would make good movies, albeit with different directors.

The other novel is probably more realistic. Nicole Mones, author of Lost in Translation, is a Sinophile and scholar who lives in China; another of her good novels is about Chinese  food and cooking. She knows a lot about de Hardin's life in Beijing and his interesting relationships with intellectual women. 

All these books are worth reading. And you might be interested to know that Becker, a New Englander who used a wheelchair and lived on a sailboat (he was a friend of Bad Bob Jones) also wrote a very good novel about law and justice in early 20th century southern New Mexico called A Covenant with Death.


Randy Davis said...

I naively thought myself the only fan of Becker's Chinese trilogy, and Covenant With Death in addition. Great to see you post about these novels. Becker lived in Orlando for awhile, was a friend of Peter Matthiessen from years past. Never read his Marines in Hati novel but am going to now

Reid Farmer said...

The expeditions found MANY fossils, including important mammals (Chapman was to write some of his best accounts of finding them in his children's book, All About Strange Beasts of the Past, in 1956 -- it was the first of his books that I read.


I had that book when I was a kid!

Randy Davis said...

I should add to the praise, Beckers translations of novels from the Chinese and French are impressive too, Malrauxs THE CONQUERORS for example, which for me was the best of Malrauxs work, lacking the suffocating ponderousness which often afflicted the adventurer-cultural minister's books. I heard too that Becker was a pal of John Cheever.

Steve Bodio said...

How about the new translation of Voir Royale? I haven't read it but I have bought it; I had to read it in Junior high School French and I liked the story. But to start with, I don't like the title "The Way of the Kings": I thought of it as Royal Road.

Malraus was an evil shit; from the time he was a Communist to the time he was a Gaullist minister, he always had an eye out for himself. But wouldn't you have loved to have his art collection? My God, he probably had more Khmer artifacts than Cambodia did.

But on another level, didn't you at one time have a translation of Rage For Falcons which you collaborated on with Marquez? I need a GOOD French translator for Querencia -- I could probably tell the whole story in French slowly, but I sure couldn't write it well. Apparently the French market for American western literature is enormous even since Jim Harrison entered their market. My friend Kirk Hogan and Jim Moore both have ideas about this, but I need a good translator.

Of course, I have to get decent rights from SkyHorse first. I received the contracts as part of a packet and I gave away 90% without looking. They get 90% of all dramatic and all translation rights, which they got for $500. Skyhorse has all rights at 90/10 in favor of the publisher; Russ had them all at 60/40 favoring the writer, except for dramatic, which were 90/10 in favor of the writer! That I gave it away for $500 is a continual embarrassment.

Randy Davis said...

Philippe Garnier is absolutely the best and has flirted with the idea of translating your Rage and Querencia, or did twenty five years ago, he passed thru Magdalena, did not find you at home, stopped at a phone booth near the bar, found your address book in the phone booth, knew it was yours because my telephone number was in it....anyway he s translated most of Salter, most of Crumley, O'brien and others