Now in English translation, the 1991 novel by bestselling Chinese author Yu Hua (To Live, 2003).
Yu’s first full-length work—actually, a serpentine, episodic collection of anecdotes forming a kind of Maoist-era kinderscenen—details the boyhood of Sun Guanglin and his encounters with some dreadfully unfortunate (or just plain dreadful) people in two Chinese rural villages—the discordantly Midwestern-sounding “Southgate” and “Littlemarsh.” Guanglin’s father, Kwangtsai, beats him, tries unsuccessfully to capitalize on youngest son Guangming’s death by drowning and molests both women in elder son Guangping’s life. Kwangtsai cavorts with the nymphomaniac widow next door, giving her his wife’s household goods, then starves his own father and ultimately drinks himself to death. Guanglin’s Littlemarsh adoptive parents, to whom he’s farmed out at age six, turn him into a household servant and entrust his education to sadistic teachers. The foster father dies spectacularly (suicide by grenade) after blowing up the apartment of the woman who exposed his extra-marital affair. Alone once more, Guanglin, now 12, borrows the fare from another unwanted child, his friend Guoqing, and returns home to where the story began: Kwangtsai’s cottage is engulfed in flames. Flashbacks reveal that Guanglin’s grandfather, Sun Youyuan, fled the Japanese invasion and rescued a former aristocrat and fellow refugee, Guanglin’s grandmother, who was turned out of her mandarin home because she happened to glimpse two sparrows mating. Youyuan saves the rice harvest by urging Southgate residents to toss out their Buddha figurines, but then dies, convinced his soul has already departed. Guanglin’s friends are equally doomed: Schoolmate Su Yu, after doing time in reform school for embracing a girl, dies of a brain hemorrhage while his family follow their morning routine, assuming Yu is sleeping late. Guoqing, whose father abruptly remarried, leaving the nine-year-old with a spooky old lady, prospers from subsidies from other relatives but at 13 is arrested for attacking a family who won’t let him court their daughter.
A grainy montage of suffering and survival, by turns morbid and mordant.