PEKING by Anthony Grey


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At the core of this often vivid chronicle of China's political vicissitudes (1934-76) is a silly saga of two families whose professional and romantic fortunes rise and fall in the turbulence. Jakob Kellner, a missionary thoroughly wired with evangelical zeal, is captured by Red Army troops in southern Hunan. His wife Felicity is beheaded, but Kellner is forced along on what will become the Long March. Conditions are brutal, though Kellner can't help but notice the soldiers' great enthusiasm for their cause (in such marked contrast to their complete indifference to Christian doctrine). Meanwhile, Kellner's baby daughter risks starvation, but (fortunate coincidence!) beautiful Lu Mei-ling, aide to Chou En-lai, has just lost her own baby, and agrees to nurse Baby Abigail. She and Kellner also have a brief affair. Thousands of men die during the crossing of the Tatu river under enemy fire, the freezing hike over the Great Snow Mountain range, and the trek across the Great Grasslands of Szechuan that brings the Communist forces to safety in the northwest, where Kellner is released. He becomes a respected Sinologist: he visits Peking in 1957 and learns that he and Lu Mei-Ling have a son, Kao. During the Cultural Revolution, the Long March heroes that Kellner knew suffer; his daughter, working in the Shanghai Language Institute, has a crush on a fervent political activist (unfortunate coincidence: he's her half-brother Kao). Next: the Peking earthquake, Mao's death, and the defeat of the Gang of Four (with whom Kao is closely involved). And Kellner and Abigail hang around, preoccupied with their own ghosts. Grey (Saigon, etc.) writes fluidly, and his action scenes--of Long March battles and physical hardships, of Cultural Revolution riots--are dramatic, even memorable. But the Kellner/Mei-ling/Kao soap opera is dragged out and larded with coincidence. With few real or compelling relationships, this offers, mainly, rich historical scenery.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1988
Publisher: Little, Brown