intense sensations

Posts Tagged ‘China

Trials of LifeTrials of Life by Junying Kirk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I spent a good while reading this book and returned to it many times to re-read passages and think about what I’d read. It stirred up many emotions because the situations were very authentic and reminded me a lot of my own life.

Although it’s a novel and the events are fictionalised, it has the feel of a documentary. There is a fly-on-the-wall realism about it, giving us slices of the characters’ lives. As the title suggests, these lives do not run smoothly. There are upsets and problems.

Conflict is necessary in a novel. It is exciting to see characters bumping up against obstacles and each other. It shows us what they are made of. And it is exhilarating to see them winning through.

But because of the documentary style of this novel, you have a sense that not all the conflicts will end happily. In life conflicts can be messy. There often are no real solutions to a problem. People go on annoying us. Bad people persist in their bad behaviour. We get distressed and traumatised and have nervous breakdowns as a result.

In Trials of Life, the situations are all too real and I felt real anger and real frustration in response to what was happening on the page. There are scenes and characters that I recognise only too well. Scenes such as when Dick Appleton is boasting of how he gave his Chinese minders the slip in Xian.  He managed, he says, to spend the night in the sleazy part of the city where he saw teahouses packed with prostitutes. Naturally, the Chinese officials would not have wanted that.

But there is a certain way foreigners talk about the Chinese government that makes a Chinese person grind their teeth in frustration. There is a shallowness and arrogance to them in the face of which you are completely helpless. You have no choice but to let them persist in their ignorance while letting them believe that they are superior and you are the stupid one.

Chinese people are not hoodwinked by their government. We know that China is not perfect. But foreigners often believe that they know what goes on in China far better than we do because they are not ‘brainwashed’. They are experts by virtue of being outsiders.

Being reminded of this is in dialogue that is all too authentic stirred up very real emotions in me. But Dick Appleton, I should stress, is a particularly villainous character. He is not your typical foreigner. He is rotten to the core.

A large part of the book is focused on an employment tribunal and the events leading up to it. We learn in bitter detail what kind of a man Dick is and what Pearl suffers at his hands. I know how hard this must have been to go through because I faced a similar situation in my own career when I was forced to quit my job. But I have to give credit to Pearl and to the author of this book, Junying Kirk. Pearl challenges Dick. She faces her demons and Junying faced hers, I am sure, in writing this book.

It is a stirring story that must draw on very personal experiences. It is free from artifice. Sincerity is in every line. It succeeds in documenting with great accuracy the trials and also the triumphs of an academic life split across two very different continents. Anyone who reads it can’t fail to be moved. And it will, I hope, allow English-speaking readers to get a better grasp of what it means to be Chinese.

Brideshead RevisitedBrideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh, this book is sensational! Sensational and sad. At first I was suspicious of its sadness. The sentimental, drunken Sebastian, suffocated by privilege and mired in wealth, was not someone I could feel sorry for. Charles Ryder, who becomes besotted with Sebastian and the vast estate of Brideshead Castle that Sebastian calls home, was a bit lacking in judgement, I felt. Those snooty English upper classes don’t deserve our pity, I wanted to tell him.

But the whole point of reading is to broaden one’s horizons, and mine were in need of broadening. For this book is a work of profound and sophisticated intelligence, engaging the full scope of the human imagination and the very best of all our feelings.

“My theme is memory,” Charles tells us, “that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of wartime. These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me.”

Memories can, indeed, be profound but it is seldom that a writer can bring them alive on the page as vividly and with such compelling credibility as Evelyn Waugh does in this deeply moving novel.

I worry that perhaps the novel is overshadowed by the television series and the films that have been made of it. A flickering image on the screen has more influence and stirs us more deeply than words that have to be read. But I heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves literature because it is more subtle and more sophisticated than the films and because Waugh’s integrity and conscience resonate within it. It is a work of very great beauty by a writer who, when he writes of things that matter to him, cannot tell a lie. I was moved by it and it made me see Waugh very differently from the image I had of him after reading a few of his more satirical books.

This book will be in my mind on my journey back to China. I am already seeing my journey differently after reading it. I wonder if my parents and my home and the surroundings that were once so familiar to me will ever seem the same again.

I will certainly never look upon a stuck-up Englishman in quite the same way again. But I’m not yet ready to become a Roman Catholic. Sorry, Evelyn. Five stars, though. Perfect job!

The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone who is looking for an erotic thrill at bedtime. It’s more of a literary curiosity. Here is a typical sex scene:

“The next morning, after a savage night of love, we put to sea again en route to China.”

It’s not that Mirbeau can’t write erotic descriptions. He can. Look at this:

“Divinely calm and pretty, naked in a transparent tunic of yellow silk, she was languidly stretched out on a tiger skin. Her head lay among the cushions, and with her hands, loaded with rings, she played with a long wisp of her flowing hair. A Laos dog with red hair slept beside her, its muzzle resting on her thigh and a paw upon her breast.”

But just when he’s getting you worked up into a lather of erotic anticipation, he sickens you with an image of horrific ugliness. He draws from a vast and various store of deformity, pain, violence, mutilation and disease. It’s grist to the mill for people who want to write like Tarantino or design a Vivenne Westwood fashion shoot; but for those of us who just want to nod off to a sexy story, it’s far too unpleasant.

Of course, the significance of setting the Torture Garden in China wasn’t lost on me. It’s a political book and the commentary on China is as politically charged as the commentary on France. Mirbeau is an iconoclast. His ideas deserve serious consideration, which they are not going to get from me here in this review. But he is also a sensationalist. China served his purpose chiefly because it was largely unknown to the West except as a source of opium, exotic flowers, intense perfumes, exquisite tortures and pretty girls with skin like porcelain.

The images are lush and striking but the plot is ultimately a frustrating one. In spite of the overt philosophising, literal meanings prove elusive. So it’s neither a good erotic novel nor an effective treatise on morbid beauty. But it is, nevertheless, extraordinary, bold and memorable. And if you enjoyed Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony, you simply have to read The Torture Garden.

The Same MoonThe Same Moon by Junying Kirk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book more than a month ago and let it settle in my mind before writing this review. I did this deliberately because I think few readers could have the same response as me to this book or read it with the same appreciation. I do not know the author exactly but I feel I know her through our shared experiences.

Like me, she is originally from China, has an academic background and was steeped in English language and literature before coming to England and continuing her studies here. In The Same Moon, she documents her experiences in these two vastly different cultural environments with painstaking honesty and care. Almost every sentence resonated with me in a special way as I recognised something I knew to be true, or had seen, or had felt somewhere on my own journey to the west.

This morning, having not looked at the book for a few weeks, something strange happened as I prepared to write this review. I couldn’t remember if the book was written in the third or the first person. This never happens to me. Even if I forget a plot (which happens often), I never, ever forget this technical aspect of the narrative.

I reached for my Kindle to check but the battery was dead. It was so dead that even when I plugged my Kindle in, I couldn’t yet use it.

While I was waiting for it to recharge, I came to the conclusion that the book must have been written in the third person, despite its intensely personal subject matter.

Why is this important, you might think? Well, to me it is very important indeed because it determines how readers engage with the story, the characters and the narrator.

The book itself contains the seed of this confusion. Is it a novel or a memoir? Is it a diary, a chronicle or a fiction?

There are diary extracts in it. At times it reads like a meticulous reconstruction. There are details in it that are not necessary for the exposition of the story. There is no plot powering the narrative along. There are often lengthy asides, thoughts, and observations that, while interesting and sometimes moving, are Tolstoyan in their irrelevance.

After reading this book you will be an expert in how to go about securing a place in a Chinese university in the late 1980s, for example. There is a little disquisition on the power and importance of dreams. Late in the novel, under the sub-heading “Fun flat-mates” there are convincing and thoughtful character sketches of four or five people who play no part whatsoever in the story.

These irrelevancies are not without merit. It must be interesting for readers to know, for example, that people from Hong Kong look down on those of us from mainland China and that they have to talk to us in English because we can’t understand their Chinese and they can’t understand ours, even if, instead of our barbaric local dialect, we speak perfect Mandarin. This is because they speak Cantonese and are too proud and stubborn to learn the official language of the Mainland.

But these many asides lead to a disjointed narrative and cloud the story’s perspective.

When my Kindle finally came to life, I discovered that the novel is actually written in the first person. Oh, so I was wrong!

But I think I was right to feel confused.

The peculiar distancing of the first-person narrator is compounded by dialogue that at times seems stiff and formal. The Chinese dialogue has been translated into very correct English sentences and the English (and Scottish) dialogue appears to have been cleaned up by an academic hand.

The narrative itself is exceptionally well written. There is none of the sloppiness you find so often in books written by native speakers of the language in England and America.

The only section I found a little disconcerting was the prologue, which is written in the first person, present tense, and describes a dream. Probably the worst sentences in the whole novel can be found here. The language is intense, creative, symbolic and, at times, clumsy.

If you can get past these slight imperfections, you will come to writing that is crystal clear in its dissection of motives and emotions. It is uncompromising in its honesty. The descriptions of romance, friendship, academia and family life are concrete, meticulous, accurate and moving.

You will learn a lot about how it feels to be Chinese, and particularly how it feels to be a Chinese woman living in the west.

I am sure it cannot have been easy for the author to set down some of these details. I understand how painful it must have been for her to recollect events that, however much they have been fictionalised, have more than a ghostly resemblance to things that actually happened.

Lastly, I have the greatest respect for her achievement in bringing to life these people, some of whom must once have actually lived and died and left a permanent and very deep impression in the author’s heart, and many of whom must be living still. They will go on living now for all of us in this remarkable book, which is, by the way, the first part in a trilogy.

I Love Dollars And Other Stories of ChinaI Love Dollars And Other Stories of China by Zhu Wen
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m a bit concerned that, because I give so many 5-star reviews, people might think I am indiscriminate.

On the other hand, my reading time is so precious that I don’t like to squander it reading a book I’m not enjoying. There are so many thrilling ones.

So I’ll compromise.

I’ll review this book without reading it.

To be fair, I tried to read it. There are six stories in this collection and I gave each of them a go. I read the first one for over twenty minutes but I couldn’t find a single thing to like.

The others I devoted much less time to. I found the accumulation of mundane sentences and banal dialogue overwhelmingly tedious. I think my flatmate’s incoherent ramblings are more literary than this.

I read (or, strictly speaking, didn’t read) these stories in English but it’s not the translator’s fault. She has also translated “Lust, Caution” by Eileen Chang, which is absolutely brilliant whether you read it in English or Chinese.

So, sorry, this gets a thumbs down from me.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous YouthTwenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I think Xiaolu Guo has a problem with narrative. That’s why she likes writing in fragments. I wonder what her films are like. It’s possible to make films without having to explain anything. In a novel, if this is a novel, you can’t really get away with that for long. Which is probably why this nearly-novel is very short.

One of the things I didn’t like is that it jumps around in time without being clear about the chronology. Just when did this little 17 year old from a sweet potato farm get her laptop and mobile phone? The references to such things as email, VCDs and DVDs are extremely confusing, especially if you have spent any time in China during the last 20 years and know what was available when.

Because of the chronological confusion, I think it does very little to illuminate life in China in recent years, although some passages, taken in isolation, are an accurate depiction of how life was at certain points in time. These isolated vignettes just don’t hang together as either a consistent narrative or as an accurate historical record.

This English version is the work of two translators, an editor, and Xiaolu Guo herself, who rewrote it after it had been translated. The result is 20 vignettes in very short sentences that are highly polished, brittle and self-conscious. Some of it is quite poetic but much of it irritated me.

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Captain Sun: Forbidden Love in ChinaCaptain Sun: Forbidden Love in China by Vanessa Wu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not sure if the title, Captain Sun, is a deliberate reference to the James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, written by Kinglsey Amis and published under the pseudonym of Robert Markham. There is something distinctly literary in the author’s style, so it might be. She seems to have read widely and to have a quirky sense of humour.

Her quirkiness is evident in the structure of this strange tale, which is arse about face, as they say here in London. It opens with a slightly shocking sex scene. There is very little build up. It appears to me to be quite cold and almost brutal.

Then there are some descriptive passages in which we learn more about the situation of the young woman and her relationship to the lecherous Captain Sun. We are given, right at the end of the story, a very specific date, which places it at a time in China when essential foodstuffs were still very strictly rationed.

The suggestion is that the woman allows Captain Sun to do as he pleases with her in return for food coupons so that she can feed her family. But it’s a little more complex than this. Sex too is “rationed” and the young woman seems to enjoy allowing herself to be abused by the captain.

I found the final paragraphs incredibly erotic and they made me want to read the whole story again from the beginning. That’s why I’m giving it 5 stars.

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Books by Vanessa Wu

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