Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Peter Hopkirk

I've rarely enjoyed a book as much as I did Peter Hopkirk's the Great Game. Written in a adventure novelistic style, it tells the story of 19th and early 20th century British and Russian adventurers who risked life and limb as they tried to win Central Asia for their empires. The stories are nearly incredible, with very young men traveling under amazingly harsh condition and with little background. Not surprisingly, they often died whether at their imperial opponents hands or at the hands of the locals, who more often than not, weren't all that interested in being part of an empire.

Hopkirk followed up these books with Setting the East Ablaze and Like Hidden Fire, books about Soviet and Ottoman/German efforts to up-end the British Empire in Asia. Like the Great Game, these are adventure stories, real-life ones, but adventure stories nonetheless. And they are filled with all the twists and turns of a novel.

I've just read his Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, which is also about European competition in Central Asia, but instead of political control as the focus, it is Buddhist art. The part of China now known as Xinjiang, but formerly known as Chinese Tartary or East Turkestan has the brutal Taklamakan Desert at its center. During the Tang Dynasty the area was home to a number of trading towns that featured a particular variant of Buddhist art. As the Tang fell, the towns and the art disappeared under the sands.

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road is about a series of explorers, representing Britain, Russia, Germany, Japan and the United States who sought to capture the archaeological glory of uncovering lost cities, manuscripts and art. Like in the prior books, the explorers were exposed to harsh conditions, although fewer met their end on these quests.

While I liked this book, I didn't like it as much as the Great Game related books. That is quite possibly personal bias, as I quite like political stories and don't have nearly as strong an interest in Buddhist art or archeology. Those with strong interests in these fields will find much to enjoy and even those who don't will likely appreciate Hopkirk's vigorous prose and nose for a good story.

No comments: