It's always impressive to read about someone giving his life to the service of others, but when sadness is refused and replaced by nature mysticism, with Catholic doctrine (rarely made explicit) somewhere in the background, you wonder exactly where, kindness apart, the author's final center of seriousness lies.
This is an unassuming book of strictly local interest. There are three categories of reader who might be interested in it - unskeptical Catholics, those studying Taiwanese minorities in the 1970s and teachers looking for a not-too-challenging text for their younger charges. Most others, I suspect, will find themselves asking questions that are never answered (such as why Father Martinson embraced Christianity in the first place).
Reading this book, it's impossible not to be reminded of another Catholic priest, Father Li in Peter Hessler's River Town (2001). When I reviewed Hessler's second book, Oracle Bones (Taipei Times, Oct. 14), I said it would become a classic. Now that I've read River Town, a description of teaching English in China's Sichuan Province in the 1990s, I see that it's even better, and indeed probably a classic already.
It's unfair to discuss Martinson alongside Hessler. Martinson's aims are good-natured and modest, whereas Hessler has high literary aspirations and writes for an international readership. Even so, there are depths of only partially-hidden feeling in Hessler's writing that I have to admit to looking for in vain in Chingchuan Story. Even death, for Martinson, characteristically brings a quick resort to prayer, and a confidence that all will be well in some other place. By contrast, Hessler tells the story of his grandfather who had briefly been a Benedictine monk, and had hoped to be sent to China but never made it. When he remembers him while saying goodbye to Father Li, he is so overcome with an inexpressible sadness that he can only hurry away.
There are no comparably revealing moments in Martinson's book, nor is there any reason why there should be. In fact, I'm mentioning River Town here largely to take the opportunity of saying that it's the most judicious, perspicacious and telling book about modern China I've ever read, and that anyone remotely interested in the region should get hold of a copy immediately. Whole swathes of it are pure gold, and as an understated but finally very moving narrative; it's hard to see how it could be improved on.