“His journey has tremendous scope and panache… serious, generous and enlightening”
I began reading The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds mindful of Pankaj Mishra’s recent comment that “the societies I travelled through are too internally diverse to be summed up by broad generalizations of the kind preferred by policy-makers and op-ed columnists.” The premise of Eric Enno Tamm’s book, subtitled A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China, invited similar skepticism but won me over on nearly every page.
Tamm, a writer in Ottawa, followed the route of the late-19th-century Finno-Russian diplomat, military officer and spy Baron Gustaf Mannerheim across Russia and its eastern reaches, Xinjiang and Gansu provinces, Tibet, Xian, Inner Mongolia and, finally, metropolitan Beijing — more than 15,000 kilometres.
He attempts to answer a question that in less able hands would be vacuous: Are we looking at an inevitable collapse reminiscent of the Qing Dynasty’s or a transformation unrealized by the wave of change and reform in the early 1900s?
This route had already been traversed, in various ways, by some great writers. What had Tamm to tell us that Colin Thubron (Shadow of the Silk Road, 2006) and Ma Jian ( Red Dust: A Path Through China, 2004) had not?
A great deal, as it turns out. Tamm’s account of his journey has tremendous scope and panache. He unearths what has happened to these regions in the intervening 100 years and his ghost companion, Mannerheim, proves useful as a baseline from which to gauge the changes…
Wisely, Tamm doesn’t answer his initial question. By the end, his travels have worn him down to an awed humility, and he echoes an earlier British observer to the effect that the longer you stay in China, the less you know.
He writes: “Yet after my trek through its far reaches, I did not fear China but grew to fear for China. . . . Many of [its] problems are interconnected so that a crisis in one area could spill over into others, potentially leading to a widespread social breakdown.”
In short, The Horse That Leaps Though Clouds is a serious, generous and enlightening introduction to this huge and infrequently travelled part of the world…
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