Su Tong, who won last year’s Man Asia literary prize with this novel, was a major voice in the avant garde that dominated the literary scene in China between the mid-1980s and the 1990s. Unlike the previous generation of socialist realists, who had been active participants in political propaganda, and the writers of trauma literature and root-seeking literature, the writers of the avant garde seemed anxious to ignore literary traditions and values; creating new, provocative styles and experimenting with language were more important to them than the contents of their fiction.
Su Tong might be the movement’s most prominent stylist. Despite the range of his subjects — a power-seeking prince of a fictional empire, a young college student sharing an old husband with three other wives in the first half of the 20th century, Empress Wu Zhao of the Tang dynasty, or an adolescent growing up in communist China — his prose, bewitching, entrapping, and sometimes misleading, can become an elaborately embroidered veil between his characters and the reader. Rather than a journey through the complexities and mysteries within human hearts, he offers a guided tour through an exotic, and sometimes erotic, labyrinth made of words.
The Boat to Redemption, which the author considers his most important work to date, is set during the cultural revolution. Ku Wenxue, said to be an orphan with a legendary revolutionary martyr for a mother, is a powerful party official until a birthmark on his bottom casts doubt on his pedigree. Falling into disgrace after the exposure of his extramarital affairs, he castrates himself and starts a new life on a barge fleet among a group of ostracised boat people, taking his teenage son, Dongliang, with him.
Between land & water
The novel is narrated by Dongliang, and follows his coming of age on the water. Nicknamed Kong Pi (empty fart) by the townspeople, Dongliang belongs to neither the boat people nor to those on land, and only when an orphan, Huixian, is adopted by the boat people does he find an anchor for his otherwise floating life.
Dongliang falls in love with Huixian and begins a decade-long, hopeless obsession with the girl who has lived a similarly rootless life to his own, between the land and the boat. Eventually, fate seems to favour Huixian more than Dongliang, allowing her a place on land, while Dongliang returns to the boat only to witness his father disappearing into the river with the martyr’s memorial stone.
The major achievement of this novel is Su Tong’s decision to forgo his strength as a prose stylist and settle for a familiar story told in a familiar language. Despite the tendency of the younger generation to dismiss the cultural revolution as a bygone era, this recent past, with its cruelties and absurdities, still lives in the nation’s memory.
At his best, Su Tong is able to catch the tragedy and comedy of that time, using a highly political language: when the birthmark on Ku Wenxue’s bottom disqualifies him as the martyr’s son, the whole town goes through a craze of examining one another’s bottoms in the toilets of municipal baths.
Dialogues filled with political clichés of the time are the highlight of the novel. In an extremely poignant exchange — both tragic and absurd — towards the end of the novel, the narrator, in order to steal the martyr’s memorial stone, has a long argument with the town’s idiot, who has for decades considered himself to be the real son of the martyr.
Su Tong’s efforts to combine a political fable with a more realistic narrative, however, is undermined by his inability to gain access to the depths of his characters. If, in his previous work, his protagonists were pillars for his prose labyrinth, in this novel, they break loose from their servitude without gaining the freedom to become real, three-dimensional people.
There are an unnecessary number of violent scenes and others involving long arguments and bickering, all of which bring false excitement and melodrama to the narrative. Then the narrator is given long passages of meditation on his nickname, Kong Pi, which frequently becomes a crutch for the author whenever the narrative falters or the excitement fizzles out.
The structure of the novel is awkward, as though two novellas, one about the father and son and the other about the orphan Huixian, have been haphazardly put together, with the result that an important part of the narrator’s life with his father on the barge is displaced by a chronological report of Huixian’s whereabouts. When the father and the son reunite over the martyr’s memorial stone, the novel could be deeply moving, yet like the worst kind of epiphany, the ending is forced, and one finds oneself momentarily confused by a 26-year-old narrator crying and screaming like the 15-year-old he is at the start of the novel.
In the end, one is left with a feeling that, for all the novel’s length, its author has taken many shortcuts: the villains remain villainous and the myths predictably come in to save the narrative when the excitement runs out. The familiar language and the story have not revealed anything new, though perhaps it is fair to point out that some of these issues are resolved in translation. This is because the process of translation allows the familiar to become strange and the strange familiar, a quality that is unfortunately absent from the original text.
THE BOAT TO REDEMPTION
Su Tong, Translated by Howard Goldblatt
Doubelday, 2009, £17.99