Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Daughter of China: Meihong Xu and Larry Engelmann

I have to salute Larry Engelmann (who also co-authored Feather in the Storm" ten years later) -- he's a bit heavy handed in making his stories feel dramatic -- but he really seems to disappear behind the voice of the storyteller whom he's enabling -- while when I do a similar thing -- I make the storyteller speak through me.

Larry Engelmann in 1988, the time of this story

But then -- he's a serious oral historian -- and I am only a dabbler.

And I also have to salute Meihong Xu -- because her story is chock full with the kind of details of 20th C. Chinese life that fascinate me - as she weaves back and forth between a foreground drama of arrest, interrogation, and escape, and a background fabric of childhood life and family history in Jiangsu province.

There are so many extreme, dramatic stories in the 20th C. -- and her little peasant village, on the road between Shanghai and Nanjing seems to have had its share.

One thing that distinguishes Meihong from all the other Chinese writers that I've read: she's not an intellectual. Not that she isn't smart -- after all, she was one-of-ten girls chosen out of the entire country to be the first class of female graduates from an intelligence officers' training school in Nanjing. But there's no teachers - writers - artists- lawyers etc in her background. She is completely outside "the stinking ninth class" - and though she's a wonderful story teller -- she mostly just wants to get ahead in the world - to be safe, prosperous, and a good daughter of her family and country.

I especially love the stories about her peculiar relatives: her poor aunt who was divorced for being childless, but then accused of being "not a woman", and
then accepting the guilt of being a village troublemaker -- but eventually finding true love with a retired businessman. And her maternal grandfather who was an early
supporter of the communists, made a local leader, got revenge on the bandits who had boiled his father alive, and died of exhaustion while touring the country as
a speaker on behalf of communism. And of course -- her paternal grandmother -- who was not her biological grandmother -- as she let her own child be switched for another woman's. Not to mention that grandmother's husband --
who drowned the author's infant aunt and owned a factory in Shanghai that he ran so well that the communists let him stay in charge -- and even let him badmouth the Communist regime whenever he felt like it. Who could invent these kinds of situations?

And finally there's the central story of Meihong the cadet and Larry the American English professor -- and there's something very wrong about it.

Not that it didn't happen the way they tell it -- but that Larry's behavior really wrecked Meihong's life. She may have escaped death and prison -but
she didn't escape an exile that separated her from her family and country -- and what else was she going to live for ?

Yes -- she does tell us that her 4 years in the academy had left her disillusioned with the army, state, and party that she served -- and she had already proven her disobedience by pursuing a relationship with her first husband, an older cadet.

Her story about the rebellious academy graduates who were angry about being posted to Tibet was very revealing. The sons of high ranking officers, they didn't expect to get this graveyard posting -- so they rioted -- deserted -- left the army -- and immediately were given lucatative jobs in the civilian sector. The following year, the school administrators realized their mistake, and this time sent the sons of peasants to that unpleasant outpost. No wonder that Meihong, coming from a peasant family, had become disillusioned.

But she had specifically told Larry that he must not process the film that pictured her in uniform -- and that his facility was was not secure from listening devices -- and he willfully - recklessly - and maybe even intentionally went ahead and ignored her. Was it just a coincidence that his actions made her dependent upon him by ruining her career ? I just don't think so. And there was someting creepy about how he moaned about his miserable lonely life the first time they were alone together.

This is the photo of Meihong that got her in so much trouble

So first he trashes her life -- then he redeems it -- and I'm not too surprised that she left him after a respectable 7 years together in sunny California.


Some other favorite details:

*the quota for executions that the party gave to each district -- and the eyewitness accounts of them through a small girl's eyes
*the smart little girl who stood up on tables to belt out communist songs -- but wouldn't begin until she was offered peanuts
*the madhouse scenes in the train stations where people are packed onto trains and those trying to leave can't get past those trying to enter --and people waiting on the platform shit in place rather than surrender their place in line.
*the kindness of the train conductors toward our ticketless heroine as she flees across country.
*the petty thievery that seems to be endemic in every project.
*the cheesy hotel in the far-west oil city where the electricity is only turned on a few minutes each day so that tenants don't waste it -- where there aren't any locks on the doors -- and the sheets are changed every few weeks or so. NOT a five-star hotel !
*the kindness of the soldiers who were sent to help each village in the 60's -- but how they became unwelcome in later decades.
*the incredible events of 1976 seen from village eye-level: the death of the three top Communist party leaders, including Mao, all accompanied by an earthquake that killed half a million people -- changing history as the personal and national levels.
*the amazing bureaucratic hassles involved in marrying a foreigner -- and the amazing ways that our protagonists got around them.
*the loyalty of the "12 Pandas" (the first class of female cadets) towards each other -- when paranoia, suspicion, and betrayal are the norm for secret police intelligence work.
(and how none of them served out their 15 year commission - while three of them left the country)
*yet another story that came to a climax in Tianamen Square in 1989 - this time we get a general's viewpoint - as he knows the troops will be firing into the crowds.
*and I really worry about that poor general -- whose father had crossed over from the Kuomintang -- and who seemed to be a ringleader of the progressive "capitalist roaders" He's really very loyal to Meihong -- he warns her -- his connections help her get married -- he gives her 5,000 Yuan to help grease the wheels of the bureaucracy in her favor-- and eventually he is cashiered and disappears. (and given his close connection to Meihong -- if she really can't get in contact with him -- he's probably not alive any longer)

In Conclusion: this was my favorite contemporary Chinese book to date -- tedious as it became during the recitation of all that interrogation -- it throbbed with history and life.

And it's probably worth a second read.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ha Jin: The Crazed

A nice companion piece for "Lily" -- this is yet another story that ends in the streets of Beijing in June of 1989 with the demonstration and military crackdown at Tianamen Square.

And yet again, the protagonist, from the intellectual class, "had no grand purpose or dream of democracy and freedom" -- and did not actively participate in the demonstrations or fighting --- so much as he tried to help those who did.

In the final pages, this protagonist, Jian, "was driven by desperation, anger, madness, and stupidity" -- all of which was explained within the first 33 chapters -- as he attended the convalescence of his professor of Chinese literature -- who was also his mentor, role model and prospective father-in-law.

And this is where the narrative - for me -- was most problematical.

His teacher, professor Yang, has had a stroke and is blabbering away in his hospital bed. O.K. -- strokes happen -- and since they can affect the mind -- sometimes the victim can start running off at the mouth.

The problem is that, as it turns out, the reader needs to be accepting all this blabber as true --- as revelatory of the reality of Yang's life -- so that we can join his student, Jian,in piecing together what that life has really been like.

The author never gives any hint of fantasy in anything Yang is saying -- as he shouts at the ceiling of his hospital room --- so I suppose that the reader has to join the narrator in accepting it as true as if Yang were confessing everything to a close friend. But I just don't accept it -- and I don't know why the protagonist would accept it either.

It seems like all of the characters in this book (including the author ?) is as "crazed" as the book's title.

It's a ugly a book about an ugly world -- but not necessarily a real one.

Here's a late scene, as he helps his ailing mentor relieve himself in the chamber pot:

"I felt giddy and like vomiting. Look at this mountain of anomalous flesh! Look at this ugly, impotent body! What a hideous fruit of the futile "clerical life", disfigured by the times and misfortunes. He reminded me of a giant larva, boneless and lethargic... the foul odor was scratching my nostrils, stifling me, and I tried not to breathe. Yet despite my revulsion, my horrified eyes never left him"

Whew ! this book smells as bad as the old running shoes, abandoned by Jian's room mate , the one who suffered from athlete's foot. (our author seems to be attracted to this kind of detail)

The family history here is similar to the other books I've read about this generation
(Jian does have a sibling -- although we never meet him in the story) The parents are intellectuals who are sent to the countryside for re-education -- where they spend the rest of their lives. Like the protagonist in "February Flowers", Jian is an academic over-achiever -- and his parents are very supportive for him to have the kind of life that was denied to them.

But again -- it doesn't work out that way. The more Jian comes to understand the world -- as revealed by the stroke-damaged but truth-telling mind of his teacher -- the more he despises it -- and longs to break free and get out.

The truth is -- his teacher has been profoundly frustrated, angry, unhappy, miserable, self-loathing -- all the time that he's been apparently leading the life of a successful academic, husband, and father. He's cheated on his wife -- she's cheated on him -- the communist party has corrupted his academic department --everything is just as rotten and foul as those old stinking shoes. If only he had worked at an American university instead ! (apparently -- he hasn't read similar novels about the lives of American academics)

Meanwhile -- where is the great literature in all of this ? It doesn't seem to be an important part of their lives -- except as an occupation for instructors. There isn't that thrill of poetry that filled Prospect garden (in "Dream of Red Chamber") The only poetry that seems to have captured their imaginations is Dante's "Divine Comedy" -- because, of course, the setting is Hell.

I guess that's why Jian is all too ready to suddenly alter his life plan right on the brink of taking his final examinations that will make him a professor. He realizes that being an academic is just like being a clerk -- and if he's going to be a clerk, why not be one who can have a positive impact on people's lives ? (so obviously, he's never been that involved with the teaching that he's done)

And yet -- I've been reading several novels with 1960's born Chinese authors/protagonists -- and this is the first one where I really want to read a sequel -- i.e. it looks like the protagonist has broken free and is ready to do something more interesting than stagger around as the walking wounded.

So I'm taking this to be the first chapter of a glorious epic -- and tedious and miserable as it may have been -- I feel it might be redeemed by future volumes.