Saturday, September 6, 2008

Truth, beauty, and hard facts in fiction, part 2

I've become a great admirer and beneficiary of contemporary Chinese literature. Anchee Min opened the door, and I've become a devoted reader of Ha Jin. This summer I was deeply moved by the beauty, daring, and sorrow of Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, in which a student shot in the head during the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square falls into a coma, but retains consciousness.

It's a mysterious, haunting, and meditative novel of the grim legacy of the surreally brutal Cultural Revolution. Courageous and creative, Ma Jian draws on Kafka and the Chinese epic The Book of Mountains and Seas in this powerfully allegorical masterwork, a compassionate and magnificent novel that exposes China’s catastrophic moral paralysis, and celebrates the inalienable freedom of the mind and spirit.

I'm also very high on Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo.
Aug. 2008. 176p. illus. Doubleday, hardcover, $22.95 (9780385525923). REVIEW. First published July, 2008 (Booklist):

Fenfang has fled the dreariness of her impoverished village in a never-changing land of sweet-potato fields and made the long journey to Beijing. There she copes with wretched little apartments, a violently angry lover, and the viciousness of nosy old neighbors who, resentful of her loveliness and independence, sic the police on her. Cockroaches swarm the walls, while on the street she confronts the great press of humanity, dense smog, corruption, and repression. But things are changing in Beijing, and Fenfang is smart, tough, and funny. She works as a film extra and gets a little break in the role “Female Number Three Hundred.” Writer and filmmaker Guo, whose A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) was a Orange Prize finalist, is a master of concision, filling each “fragment” of her alluring and admirable narrator’s life with irony, anguish, and insight. Once Fenfang recognizes that her loneliness and yearning for dignity and freedom are shared by all, she finds her voice and path to self-expression. A remarkably atmospheric, metaphoric, and piquant novel of personal and cultural metamorphosis. — Donna Seaman

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