In a loosely paced, prize-winning political satire, possible descendants of a Chinese revolutionary martyr are linked to an orphan girl with a bourgeois attitude.
Su Tong (My Life as Emperor, 2005, etc.) won the Asian Man Literary Prize for this salty tragicomedy tracing an absurdly burdened life in the era of the Cultural Revolution. Its central character is Dongliang, whose father believes himself the son of revolutionary heroine Deng Shaoxiang, a fact proved by the fish-shaped birthmark on his backside. But when an investigative team declares the claim invalid, 15-year-old Dongliang’s world falls apart. His father’s “lifestyle problems” (multiple sexual liaisons) also come to light, and divorce follows. Forced to choose between his parents, Dongliang accompanies his father into a life of shame on a fishing barge where Ku tries to castrate himself. The curious tone of the story lends a farcical, occasionally even dreamy edge to a tale layered with subtle references to China’s recent past as well as burdensome sexuality and sorrow. Dongliang is often adrift, a misfit who only discovers some purpose when an orphan child, Huixian, is found on the barge. But Dongliang’s feelings are not reciprocated, and Huixian grows up first to a life of success and then experiences her own fall from grace.
This meandering, oddly shaped novel is likely to be of greater impact to readers familiar with its context.