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Ku Dongliang and his father, Ku Wenxuan, are forced to live on a barge on the river following Ku Wenxuan's fall from grace. Originally believed to be the son of a revolutionary martyr, it is eventually proved that Mr Ku was not so - as a result, his position in society takes a nose-dive. Dongliang suffers as a result of this, finding it hard to make friends within the barge community and on shore. Then an orphaned girl moves onto the barges and finds a place in Dongliang's apparently cold heart. Will she be able to take him out of himself? Or will she, too, turn her back on him?
Su Tong is a superb author; one that is sadly much under-estimated in the West, even though he was responsible for the brilliant 'Raise the Red Lanterns', on which the film of the same name was based. It was with delight that I realised there was another of his books translated into the English language and that it was the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009. My delight was even greater when I realised that it was translated by Howard Goldblatt, almost certainly the best translator of literary Chinese in existence. Unfortunately, my delight was to be short-lived when I started reading.
The setting, during the Cultural Revolution when certain parts of society were ostracized, is one that I am very familiar with, having read a number of both fictional and non-fictional books on the subject. As far as Su Tong goes, this seems to be a departure from his usual background, which tend to be pre-Communist rule in 1949. I am used to sumptuous descriptions of materials and surroundings that leap up off the page. In this book, I was struck by the drabness of the setting - to be fair, I am positive that this is absolutely correct, but it just didn't capture my attention as much as previous forays into this author's work have done.
Then there is the main character, Ku Dongliang. Su Tong is known for his great characterisations of women, even though he is a man, yet for this book, he chooses a male main character. That should arguably be a good move, yet I found myself unable to identify with Dongliang. He is going through puberty for much of the book, yet his reactions to other people, even bearing in mind what happens to him, are very odd and not at all understandable. I think it is fair to say that he has some form of mental illness, but even though I am very familiar with depression, Dongliang's behaviour is just way too off the scale.
Dongliang's father, Ku Wenxuan, is no better. At one point, he cuts off his penis, because his womanising has been a problem in the past. It is partially sewn back on, but he never leaves the barge again and struggles to maintain relationships with anyone, even his son. I should have felt sorry for him and the way that his life came crashing down around his ears, but I just couldn't summon up the enthusiasm. And the little girl who moves onto the barges is just plain obnoxious and selfish and I challenge anyone to find anything remotely likeable about her character.
Another low-point to the book was the large amount of descriptions of masturbation and lustful thoughts. Sex in China has been largely taboo until quite recently, and it is now common in fiction - making up for lost time, I suppose. However, I'm a little tired of it now. I'm no prude, but I felt at times that sex had taken over from the storyline - and it wasn't remotely titillating. Had it added something to the book, I wouldn't have minded, but I really don't think that it did.
On the whole, it is hard to work out exactly what the point of the book is. It does show the class divisions that happened in society and it shows how someone previously well-respected could become a laughing stock. Apart from that though, I didn't really understand why Su Tong felt the need to write the book. Certainly, the ending left me more confused than when I started. The fact that the book won the Man Asian Literary Prize makes me think I must have missed something - but I honestly don't know what.
On a more positive note, the writing is excellent; it flows well and is a real delight to read. This is at least partially down to Howard Goldblatt's excellent translation - it really is absolutely spot-on. The only time it didn't seem to gel properly was when cat excrement was described as cat droppings - I've never heard of cat droppings before. Nevertheless, that is a small price to pay for what is otherwise a fine piece of translation - I know first-hand how very hard it is to bring the nuances of the Chinese language across into English and Goldblatt deserves a medal for what he has produced.
It probably seems that I have been very critical of this book. That is only because my expectations were so high. On the whole, the story is entertaining, with the odd, much needed splash of comedy to lighten the proceedings. It is certainly a very interesting insight into a turbulent time in China's history and it wouldn't have won the Man Asian Literary Prize if it didn't have something about it. I wouldn't, however, recommend it to someone beginning their path into Chinese literature - Su Tong's 'Raise the Red Lantern' (originally published as Wives and Concubines) is a much better place to start.
The book is available from Amazon for £11.47 (for the hardback version - the paperback hasn't yet been released). Published by Doubleday, it has 368 pages. ISBN: 038561344X