An ambitious and eloquent, though unfortunately sluggish, novel of ideas—the first from a distinguished art and literary critic—arrives here bearing France’s 1998 Prix Femina, among other effusive accolades. It’s the first-person narrative of a Chinese painter, Tianyi, who comes to maturity during the Sino-Japanese War. Leaving behind both Yumei, a popular actress, and intellectual soulmate Haolang (virtual Platonic ideals of “The Lover” and “The Friend,” respectively), Tianya travels in the late 1940s to Paris, Holland, and Italy (to study the great painters), and returns to China a decade later, only to learn that Yumei, a suicide, and Haolang, a prisoner in a northern “re-education camp,” have become victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution—as does Tianyi himself, who thence travels north to embrace his destiny. His vision of “the river” (“below” the ideal, or heavenly, realm) as an image of continuity (and hence survival) has a power too often only suggested by Cheng’s oracular pronouncements and infuriating preference for summaries in place of specific scenes. The River Below has its moments—quite a few, actually—as an account of its protagonist’s education and as a symbolic orchestration of its several controlling themes, but it isn’t much of a novel.