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Just before the Cultural Revolution, Baldy Li's mother and Song Gang's father met, fell in love and married. The two young boys took to each other immediately, and soon became fast friends. However, their comfortable existence is soon to be steam-rolled by the trials and tribulations of the Cultural Revolution. The family is of landlord stock, albeit in the distant past, and they become class enemies, forced to constantly self-criticise and accept abuse from those of a better class. Song Gang's father is beaten to death and Baldy Li's mother soon falls into a state of pining from which it is clear she will never emerge. Will the teenage brothers be able to survive on their own? And will their parents' death split the two of them up?
Having lived in China for many years, I am always interested in reading about the country and its people, be it fact or fiction. Unfortunately, translations aren't always readily available in the UK, so I was delighted to receive a copy of this book, which is a Chinese bestseller. The story tracks the lives of Baldy Li and Song Gang throughout the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. This may put some readers off, thinking that a background in Chinese history is necessary in order to understand the story. However, I don't think it is all that necessary; the book concentrates very much on the lives of the two young men, and although there are some cultural issues that a Western reader may not immediately understand, there is little that can't be worked out.
One of my first thoughts when I started reading the book, and one that remained with me during the process of reading, was that it reminded me of a Charles Dickens novel. It isn't immediately obvious why; for a start, the country and the period are completely different! However, I think it has something to do with the amount of information that is given about the characters, Baldy Li in particular. After just a few chapters, I really felt as though I knew everything about Baldy Li and how he coped with the horrors that life threw at him. Nothing is spared, not even his early forays into masturbation. Another, more obvious, similarity with Dickens' work is the way that the characters are beaten down as far as they can go and then slowly begin to work their way up again. That is not to say that everything works out well though!
The story initially seems to be a mere life story; and to a certain extent it is. What I didn't expect was the wealth of emotions that I felt while reading. The most traumatic part of the book is the death of Song Gang's father. The way that he is beaten to death by the Red Guards (upholders of the Cultural Revolution spirit) is truly revolting and described in great depth. I have heard many such stories before, and, as an avid watcher of horror, I am not easily moved, but the description is so horrific I could hardly bear to read. Perhaps to counteract this horror, other parts of the book are much more amusing, sometimes overly silly. At other times, I felt immense pride for the brothers and the way that they dragged themselves up.
The translation of foreign language books is always an issue - a bad translation can really ruin the flow of the story. This is a slightly odd one. The language occasionally feels a little clumsy in that the way people speak is translated very literally. However, this somehow adds to the authenticity of the story - for me at least - and I really enjoyed it. Far from not flowing properly, it flows really well. Names are another issue. Baldy Li is not exactly an everyday name in the West, but others are even odder - try Yanker Yu (the local dentist) and Writer Liu for starters! That said, if you are expecting a read that complies with Western traditions, why are you reading this book in the first place?
My only real issue with this book is the frequent mention of sex. And not your average boy meets girl sex. Baldy Li's childhood masturbation is described in great depth, as is his disposition for peeking at women's bottoms in the public toilets as they go about their business. Later on in the book, he decides to hold a national competition for the most beautiful virgin. This involves much emphasis on the fact that none of the so-called virgins are, indeed, virgins, but have had hymen reconstruction surgery, or have inserted fake hymens. All this is described in much detail, and although amusing at times, became a little jaded after a while. And the frequent reference to women not being virgins was irritating - obviously none of the men were either, but that is conveniently side-tracked.
In fairness, I think that the author is using sex as a metaphor for the delinquent behaviour that has come about because of the changes in society - people are losing sight of what is important now that the possibility of becoming rich is real. There certainly is a lot of emphasis on morals and how some things are more important than money. At times, however, the author almost seems to be suggesting that being 'good' is a waste of time and it is necessary to dissect the story to reach the gist of what he is really saying. This isn't a criticism, just a reminder that perhaps this book shouldn't just be read at face value.
Despite the occasional irritations, I did really enjoy this book. It is a massive piece of work - there are over 600 pages of closely typed script to get through - and I don't think it should be read in a hurry. This is a book to savour, not to rush. There is no need to worry that you will forget the storyline in between bouts of reading - the story will become indelibly imprinted in your memory! I highly recommend this book.
The paperback version of the book is available from play.com from £9.95 (it is a hefty volume at 600 pages). ISBN-13: 978-0330469715
This review was originally published on thebookbag.co.uk, written by me.