August, Oliver 1971–
August, Oliver 1971–
Born 1971, in Germany; immigrated to England. Education: Attended Oxford University.
Journalism Award, Anglo–German Foundation.
Along the Wall and Watchtowers: A Journey down Germany's Divide, HarperCollins , 1999.
Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2007.
A longtime journalist for the London Times, Oliver August was the youngest reporter to be appointed a New York correspondent for the newspaper. In his book Along the Wall and Watchtowers: A Journey down Germany's Divide, the author examines the social and physical remnants of the once-divided Germany, where the author was born before immigrating to England with his family. The book is also an account of the author's own travels through Germany's former frontier as he encounters various people and reports on their views of the rapid reunification of Germany after more than forty years as a divided country following Germany's defeat in World War II. In the process, August examines the political and social problems in Germany in relation to the country's reunification. These problems have persisted, according to August, despite the elimination of the border, including the Berlin Wall. For example, the author discusses how the lives of Germans who were committed to the Communist Party changed for the worse after Germany reunited in 1989.
"August seems the ideal German tour guide for British readers,’ wrote Mark Leonard in Management Today. ‘His father escaped west across the unfortified border in 1949; he also visits the uncommunicative relatives left behind.’ Referring to the book as an ‘engrossing account,’ Library Journal contributor Olga B. Wise went on to write: ‘This is a fearless, critical, accurate, and balanced assessment of the complicated political and social situation.’ Several reviewers also appreciated the humor in August's book. As Chris Martin stated in Geographical: ‘August's is a funny book,’ adding: ‘By its conclusion you wonder why Germany tolerated this monstrosity for so long.’ Peter Hylarides, writing in the Contemporary Review, called the book ‘a highly interesting and often witty account,’ adding: ‘Culturally, Mr. August's journey constitutes a lively and entertaining exploration of the border area. His description of the contrast between the drab, concrete East German cities and their rich, exuberant western counterparts is a pleasure to read."
The author turns his attention to China in his next book, Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man, which a Publishers Weekly contributor called ‘a harrowing, super-detailed story.’ The author, who was once stationed in Beijing on assignment from the Times, details China's runaway growth in comparison with its idealistic notion of the bandit, referred to in Mandarin as tufei. Specifically, the author focuses on the hunt for Lai Changxing (sometimes spelled Changxiang), who went from being a poor country boy to a billionaire to the most hunted man in China. Ostensibly an importer of foreign cars and a real-estate entrepreneur, Changxing made most of his money by smuggling and various other illegal enterprises. ("Red Mansion’ in the book's title refers to a pleasure palace built by Changxing, which he named after one of China's most noted works of fiction and used to entertain and bribe government officials.) Despite his success, Changxing went into hiding after the Chinese government named him a wanted criminal. Nevertheless, he was often referred to as a type of Robin Hood by the Chinese people. The book follows August as he tracks down various people who can tell him about Changxing. In the process, the author ponders an authoritarian government that faces the need to loosen controls to boost its economy while still seeking to maintain its overall control over its citizens. Eventually, Chianxing is captured in Canada, and the author recounts the extraordinarily long hearing he was given in Canada's legal system.
In a review of Inside the Red Mansion for Booklist, Brendan Driscoll noted that the author ‘deserves praise for getting outside of the big cities to provide a candid glimpse of local entrepreneurs.’ Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the book is ‘a colorfully digressive book capitalizing on the thought that understanding the new China is essential to understanding a criminal who could so successfully exploit it."
Several reviewers also remarked on the author's apparent ‘innocence’ concerning China at the beginning of his hunt for the ‘bandit.’ For example, he did not initially realize that he would be closely monitored by Chinese authorities, so much so that one government official complimented him on his book before it was even published. As for his own safety, August told Publishers Weekly contributor Steve Silva that he never felt threatened: ‘The people that I met were extremely welcoming. They were more concerned with their own safety than mine.’ Washington Post Book World contributor Steven Mufson offered this about the book: ‘In the end, he sheds his innocence and succeeds in describing a China that is, as he puts it, ‘at once anarchic and authoritarian,’ where freewheeling capitalism flourishes under the watch of the communist state, where the ruling party appears simultaneously rigid and adaptable, corrupt and yet surprisingly secure."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, July 1, 2007, Brendan Driscoll, review of Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man, p. 13.
Contemporary Review, June, 2000, Peter Hylarides, ‘Life in a United Germany,’ p. 326.
Geographical, December, 2000, Chris Martin, review of Along the Wall and the Watchtowers: A Journey down Germany's Divide, p. 98.
Library Journal, February 15, 2001, Olga B. Wise, review of Along the Wall and Watchtowers, p. 185.
Management Today, November, 1999, Mark Leonard, review of Along the Wall and Watchtowers, p. 58.
New Yorker, August 6, 2007, review of Inside the Red Mansion, p. 71.
New York Times Book Review, July 30, 2007, Janet Maslin, ‘A Tycoon Who Ate the ‘New China’ for Breakfast."
Publishers Weekly, April 30, 2007, review of Inside the Red Mansion, p. 147; May 21, 2007, Steve Silva, ‘PW Talks with Oliver August: Chasing Lai Changxiang,’ p. 44.
Spectator, November 20, 1999, review of Along the Wall and Watchtowers, p. 54.
Washington Post Book World, August 26, 2007, Steven Mufson, ‘Bandit or … Entrepreneur? People Such as Lai Changxing Are Building the New China—for Better or Worse,’ review of Inside the Red Mansion, p. 9.
Oliver August Home Page,http://www.oliveraugust.com (October 17, 2007).