The Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) and Journey to the West, which have always held me in thrall.
The period of this novel, from the end of the revolution through the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen is almost impossible not to find interesting as straight history because of the wrenching societal upheavals, personal traumas, the hugeness of the country, and pace of change. What Thien did was to put a face and family history through that trauma and connect that history to the great Chinese migration east, to the West.
Her lens was a good choice for the story she chose to tell, musicians who played western instruments and music, for it is they who were targeted during the Cultural Revolution most harshly, along with other specialists in western thought or sciences. The part about getting “sent down” to the countryside was not as thoroughly fleshed out as it could have been, but she included details which placed many friends and colleagues in far reaches of China long after that decade passed. The dislocation and missed opportunities were apparent in the lives of those she spoke of who had returned, to some extent, to their old lives. The interpretation of western music by Chinese musicians is a fascinating thread that could have been a story in itself, another frustration. Thien's story is both too big and too small.
The Book of Records was a strangely effective tool, if I understood it correctly, to tie together the lives of those past and future, and the samizdat quality of appearing and disappearing chapters had an authentic feel. Citizens had a real fear of the reach of the state. The scenes before and during the Tiananmen incident also had an immersive, completely authentic quality. When Thien talked about the buildup to June 4 on college campuses, the innocence of the students, the terror of the parents, the gradual buy-in by the factories and universities from around the country, the sense of held breath, and the euphoria, these details rang true.
So why was it difficult for me to listen to this novel? It could be the uncomfortable sense of listening to heartstrings, or perhaps it was the Western connection. I'm not sure. This was a nation ripping itself to pieces. Pity is not an appropriate sensation, nor is any sense of a Western mindset. There is much that was pitiable about life in that period, but perhaps it was the lack of distance, or humor, or sense of historical moment that I missed. These small stories against the backdrop of fifty years in the life of a nation in revolution seemed too small, or too magnified. I never felt really engaged.
The last portion about Tiananmen filled in pieces in my understanding of that time and was detailed and involving for me in a way that the rest of the narrative wasn’t. But this is what I mean about the history being much more interesting than the individual stories. Her characters didn’t matter. We are looking at this spectacle of a nation struggling between revolt and control. The individuals are swept away, a distraction to the magnificence of something on the scale of a natural disaster. It seemed too much for her tiny story, though how else could such a thing be described, except in this way? One day we may find someone who has figured that out.
Thien deserves credit for the enormity of what she attempted, successful or not. It seems that those who didn’t already know this history intimately might have found much to interest them. Those who do know China more intimately might, like me, be waiting for a work that even comes close to encompassing even a piece of the inexpressible and unfathomable hugeness of China as we know it, with no inkling of the West. It is the East that interests us, not the West looking at the East.
I listened to the Recorded Books audio production of this novel, narrated by Angela Lin. Beautiful Mandarin pronunciations were dubbed in for place and people names. There were times when I wondered if the paper copy would help me to understand the form and function of the Book of Records, the form of which I only had a hazy idea about after listening for some twenty hours. And I wondered if the paper copy had ideographs copied out, which would add to the reading experience. If one wants the immersive experience and is unfamiliar with China’s recent history, I think I would recommend the Whisper-sync option, so that one could listen or read alternately, or one after the other, perhaps, to capture all the nuance in this big, ambitious novel.
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