Generational novel of loss and miscommunication in a Chinese village.
The sins of the fathers are always visited on the children. Often mentioned as China’s leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, Liu (The Cook, The Crook, and the Real Estate Tycoon, 2015, etc.) writes of a simple tofu peddler who inherited the job and doesn’t want it. Yang Baishun’s father has only one friend, a carter, and even when it turns out that the friend doesn’t feel the same about him, Old Yang takes a forgiving attitude: “He shouldn’t have had to drive a cart all his life,” he sighs. His son also thinks he has a friend but does not, and so the younger Yang heads out to seek his fortune doing anything other than selling tofu. In time he has a wife and daughter, each of whom he loses: one runs away, one, it seems, is kidnapped. But by whom? The story jumps ahead two generations, and the same things are happening in a newer China: “When he turned thirty-five,” writes Liu of a descendant, “Niu Aiguo knew that there were only three people he could count on if he ran into trouble.” Run into trouble he does, as marriages dissolve, siblings vie, and the members of Yang’s bloodline look back into the past to ponder their mother’s disappearance years earlier. That mystery is in plain sight, for Liu seems concerned with other truths. Though he gives the storyline an indefinite air by not providing a firm chronology, he wants us to know that the story links two worlds, the old China of tiny villages and warlords and the new post-revolutionary one of party dictatorship and a command economy, even as nothing ever changes: “He had lied to her,” he writes. “It was only a minor lie that day. But he had started lying to her a week before, and that was major.” Friendless, untruthful, and unheard, his characters simply endure.
A chronicle of lives of quiet desperation lived half a world away, understated and thoughtful, cheerless without being morose.