Publishing date:-September, 2014
Publishing House:- Doubleday Books
Seldom do I rue the absence of the solidity of a paperback I can clutch to my chest out of an overwhelming love, memorize the feel of its pages against my fingertips. My priorities lie in knowing what I do not, the means to the end irrelevant in this instance. The advent of the e-reader has negated the problem of the steadily shrinking space on the book shelf and helped me horde books without a care. And yet sometimes a kindle copy just isn't enough. The last time I had felt this familiar pang of kinship with a book right after turning over the last page was when Adichie left me feeling the weight of Biafra's senseless wartime violence (Half of a Yellow Sun). I procured a physical copy right after.
I will do the same with this one too. Because imperfectly characterized and contrived as it is, this is the story I would want to associate modern China with. This is a book I would want to read again someday.
All the cacophony around censorship and forgotten square massacres and totalitarianism aside, Xiaolu Guo's globe-trotting, no doubt most ambitious work till date tries to reclaim the dignity of the individual from the clutches of state ownership - a theme I have been desperately seeking out in my pick of literature from the land with less than satisfactory results.
So far what I have gleaned from the works of writers from the mainland is mostly an overarching sense of dejection and bitterness - a gloomy preoccupation with rubbing old wounds raw.
Outside the bar, the midnight sky was lit by a vast cascade of fireworks, illuminating the solemn and dark Long Peace Avenue, the featureless Heavenly Gate Park, the foreboding Forbidden City, the drumming Bell Tower, and finally creating a fake light of day in Tiananmen Square. A new century of amnesia had arrived on China's earth.
But unlike the defeated, anguished voices of other contemporary Chinese authors, Guo's brims over with a valiant hope. Her Mu and Jian face the consequences of their political beliefs with an understated courage, hop across geographical boundaries to embrace the challenges of a hitherto unknown world outside their beloved China, even if to find themselves thwarted at various junctures. Driven out of their homeland by forces beyond their control and comprehension, they plunge headfirst into individual journeys of self realization, only their letters to each other tethering them to their shared reality in Beijing. And yet the same restlessness of being, the same grim disillusionment and feeble optimism color their evolving worldviews as they grapple with both hostility and acceptance in the humdrum heart of Europe and America. Experiences dismantle their prejudices about the west and the reckless abandon of youth gradually gives way to true wisdom. While Mu comes to acknowledge the purpose in Jian's subversive punk rock concerts in Beijing and his revolutionary zeal, Jian discovers merit in Mu's pacifist stance, her unrestrained love of life, art and literature.
Art is the politics of perpetual revolution. Art is the purest revolution, and so the purest political form there is. A great artist is a great revolutionary.
Revolution = art, and art = perfect freedom. Right now, we have no revolution, no real art and no freedom.
As a lonely, unsociable Scottish translator unspools the many different threads of their past and present from a collection of letters and journal entries in her London flat, Mu and Jian's discordant voices harmonize in pitch and intensity across the barriers of time and space to meld into a symphony of human triumph. Their unbridled zest for life and liberty comes to symbolize the individual's quest for emancipation, to disentangle oneself from the myth of a national identity. Time, place and circumstances recede into the background. History's tenacious grip loosens. Mu and Jian's enduring love for one another finds its truest expression in the dream of a new China - one freed from the shadow of oppression.
I am China. We are China. The people. Not the state.
May this very dream survive.
**ARC received from Doubleday Books through Netgalley**
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