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.


Arthur Wilderson, who knows more about guns that almost anyone, reminded me that Vladimir Nabokov died 36 years ago this week.

After I praised his English, more fluid and colloquial than his only rival as a non- native English- speaking  novelist in the language (VN would have said American I think), Arthur agreed: “I was always a little irked when he would complain of his “second-rate”
command of English in the forward of some of his novels.  As though he
could possibly have anything to complain about in that regard!”

Right– tell me what other “American” could have written Pale Fire— yeah, odd, but an impossible tour de force. The same un- degreed Russian emigre wrote at least two more essential American novels: Lolita (with On the Road as its crude brash kid brother and Roger Tory Peterson’s ‘s Wild America its overlooked one, one of the three essential road and motel novels of the fifties, the road and motel decade); and Pnin, the only academic satire I can stand– well, maybe Lucky Jim. All the while analyzing butterfly genitalia in the Harvard Museums while being condescended to there as well, doing so well with traditional taxonomic methods that his classification of the Blues is confirmed by today’s DNA studies fifty years and more later.

I picture his burly tweed- clad figure racing off from his tiny office to some unnecessary meeting imposed on him and stumbling impatiently over a little kid who is seated cross- legged on the floor in front of a glass case containing awkwardly stuffed specimens of Neotropical birds, trying to figure out THEIR taxonomy and wondering why the taxidermist has chosen yellow eyes for the bat falcon…