I see I taste I write Links What?
July 4, 2010


Yiyun Li - ISBN 9780812973341

My reaction to this book was peculiar. It is wonderfully descript, extraordinarily if very plainly written, full of fascinating and enlightening information and psychological insight, and yet I had difficulty staying with it.

I've commented before that if, after 50 pages, I "cannot get into it" I just reshelve the book. But with this one I kept picking it up and reading another 20-30 pages. It continued to interest, but was not a compelling read. Nonetheless I recommend it for its subject, well explored.

Li writes of China during the period in the late 70s--shortly after the disruptively vicious Cultural Revolution and Mao's death--exploring the choices required to survive, the individual and community tragedies, and the brutal, humiliating nature of the communist society of this (or any) era. She does so with a variety of intriguing, well drawn characters whom she fashions to fulfill the encompassing issues she explores.

These widely varietal characters are caused to interact with one another in disorderly fashion, yet importantly for her narrative. They include a spectrum from the well educated to the illiterate, those in and out of favor by the regime, and from the (relatively) comfortable to the homeless. Each has strengths, weaknesses and individual peculiarities, which Li exploits as she paints the milieu into which they have been forced: a new community named Muddy River. This town of 20,000 was created by government to accommodate, employ, educate and "manage" myriad souls from rural areas thus compressed in the "leap forward" to communist prosperity; the vaunted proletariat, coerced by their Maoist masters. The wide ranging story explores the compelling lies of the dictatorial communist pretensions.

Raised in China during the period, Li speaks authoritatively about it, helping the reader to understand truths which no one in the west can easily accommodate. Their reality is oppressive, their lives all but totally managed by repression and fear. No one is free, even--or especially--those important within the hierarchical structure of the town; community is overstepping as a description, as would be society. There are unavoidable interactions, and individual acts of compassion and concern, but terror is a daily experience and presents itself in varietal ways, some subtle and some not so. Being human seems sufficient reason for humiliation, yet by the meekest thru the most powerful the attempt is made to carve out some sort of endurable existence; the perpetual question is what compromises are necessary to avoid being crushed by reality. The town is crowded, dirty, ugly and oppressive; the people are bland, at least overtly, and the choices are few and dictated for the most part. Still, boys and girls are portrayed with many characteristics recognizable in the west as humanly predictable; similarly so with adult actions and interactions; marital and neighborhood exchanges likewise. Beneath it all is a human drama, despite the awfulness of survival.

One particularly poignant, underplayed episode deals with a young boy who has lost his dog (a fact of no concern whatever to anyone else), only to discover that "there were endless duplicates or substitutes for anything, a jacket, a dog, or a boy." Yet the school hierarchy demands of students on a daily basis, submission to the collectively imposed mindset: "You've all been born under the red flag of revolution and grown up in the honeypot the party has provided. . . . Now answer me, children, who has given you this happy life?"

How does one avoid risk? "If you stay in line you'll never be in the wrong place. And if you do nothing wrong, you will never fear anything, even when the ghosts come to knock on your door at midnight." It is not actually so, but it's a demonstrative remark nonetheless. After all, where is "the line" one is supposed to stay within? And how is "wrong" officially defined?

The elderly, especially those of the mandarin class still recall the beauties of their culture before WWII and Mao; the younger groups actively strive for something resembling a normalcy they've never experienced. Most, however, simply exist; take up space, endeavor to survive; to breathe. Beneath it all is a scattering of "pre-Tiananmen" desire for democracy, but it is largely and effectively suppressed.

The book opens with the public humiliation, torture and execution of a "counterrevolutionary." It culminates 335 pages later when an organized "push back" over that incident is viciously suppressed, and its organizers humiliated, tortured and executed. No freedom of expression is allowed . . . ever.

It is a particularly cogent book today as we move, however subtly in that direction here in America. Government insists upon its responsibility to "take care of us" (read: manage); news is more manipulated than ever before as a White House agency presents it as it insists we see it, all the while making noises about more control. We have yet to see people arrested as a result of accusations from persons unknown, but it has not escaped some of us that it is possible.

It all seems unlikely for so long as we are armed, but worthwhile remembering that the second amendment assures the continued relevance of the others.

Posted by Curmudgeon at July 4, 2010 11:37 AM