A young Chinese man’s worldview is challenged by personal tragedy in this debut historical novel, set in China during the Cultural Revolution.
Hua Jiansen is a teenager so intoxicated by Chinese Communist revolutionary ideology that he travels all the way to Beijing to see Chairman Mao. He proudly forms the Red Universe Fighting Column—a youthful group of rebels that terrorize teachers and students who don’t submit to Mao’s party line—and appoints himself its commander. Later, he pulls a childish prank—falsely reporting that two signal flares were shot by “class enemies”—but Su Qin, the commander of the largest rebel group in Tiaodong, receives the news with deadly seriousness; he orders an investigation that eventually ensnares Hua Zhongyong, Jiansen’s father. Zhongyong, a lonely factory worker who was abandoned by his wife, enjoyed a torrid assignation with his son’s teacher, Pu Xia. But she’s worried their encounter will cause her to lose face, so she plots against Zhongyong with Bu Yuelian, another lover, who makes spurious accusations. Debut author Liu, in this novel translated by Zhang, vividly depicts Jiansen’s vengeful rage in response to his father’s abuse, as well as his ensuing disenchantment with the revolution, due to injustices. Liu parallels Jiansen’s fate with that of Quan Bizheng, a dedicated revolutionary whose commitment to the cause ultimately drives him insane. The author lived through the tumultuous times that he depicts here, and he captures that feeling of chaos with astuteness and passion. However, the tone of the prose is alternately bland and breathlessly melodramatic: “You’re such a dish, a dreamboat, so drop-dead gorgeous, like a fairy in the heaven,” says Zhongyong at one point. “And you’re so learned, so knowledgeable. I’m nothing but a rough hand with a smoker’s breath.” Also, the plot is so disjointed that readers may find it exasperatingly difficult to decipher. In the end, Liu seems more interested in providing a historical parable than a readable story—a design that he all but announces in his introductory commentary.
A confused tale of the People’s Republic, conveyed in unconvincing prose.