Children of a Revolution
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
By Da Chen
Shaye Areheart. 421 pp. $25
Da Chen has knotted a complex and brilliant novel that brings together a human story and an inhuman regime. He chronicles the brutal facts of the Cultural Revolution while withdrawing at times to the serene hills and seascapes of rural China and to the idealism and dreams of his characters.
"Brothers" is his first novel, although he has published two widely praised memoirs, "Colors of the Mountain" and "Sounds of the River." The bare bones of his biography are astonishing. Raised in a remote village in a formerly wealthy family disgraced and degraded by the new Communist government, Da Chen lost no time moving on and out. In his own words, "Da arrived in America at the age of 23 with $30 in his pocket, a bamboo flute, and a heart filled with hope." Almost as an aside, he mentions that he then graduated from Columbia Law School.
The structure he has chosen for his fiction debut is a challenging one. Two half brothers live parallel but entirely different lives: one a beloved and honored heir, the other a spurned and abused bastard. Both men fall in love at different times with the same woman, Sumi Wong. That Da Chen pulls this off without painfully stretching credibility is a measure of his narrative skills.
The bastard child, Shento, is born in rural China in 1960, barely surviving the suicide of his pregnant mother; his half brother Tan, also born in 1960 but in Beijing, is the grandson of two eminent men, the governor of the Bank of China and Chairman Mao's top military commander. As Tan reflects, "Grandfather Long kept Mao from going bankrupt," and "Grandfather Xia kept the chairman from going out of power." Both brothers are the sons of the powerful Gen. Ding Long, who declines to acknowledge Shento, the son of his mistress.
They tell their own stories in alternating chapters. As the novel opens, the scene is set in a formal narrative prose that is exotic yet fluent. The Westerner is initially put at a distance, but inexorably Da Chen creates a three-dimensional Chinese world of manners, relationships, politics and people. The reader is swung back and forth between the brothers with the hypnotic sensation of watching a hard-fought tennis match -- the ball moves faster and faster as the novel progresses. Occasional asides from Sumi allow a third, more introspective dimension. Da Chen, writing in his second language, has perfect pitch.
Both men suffer from the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, although in completely different ways. Tan lives in luxury and is sent to the best schools, but political chicanery and false accusations result in his family being exiled back to the small town of their ancestors. Shento, on the other hand, ends up in a Dickensian orphanage where he meets Sumi, the survivor of parents executed for writing plays criticizing the Communist Party. In the midst of cruelty and squalor, Shento is entranced with Sumi, the other bright student in his class. He tells her she "had the heart of a writer and the soul of a poet."
Violence escalates. After a deadly conflict to defend Sumi's honor, Shento ends up on Number Nine Island undergoing hideously cold and vicious training for the Communist security forces. He is molded into the perfect apparatchik, while Tan, back in the village, befriends his schoolteacher and also meets Sumi, who by this time is a household servant trying to attend school. Tan plots, pedals his bicycle and secretly maneuvers to become a full-fledged capitalist.
The story accelerates. Tan and his family are rehabilitated, and he builds a commercial and real estate empire. He personifies the shift in Chinese society toward capitalism and prosperity. But even as Tan turns into a Chinese Donald Trump, Shento is ascending different heights. He is the star of his top-secret training school, learns to kill on demand, and in due course is sent to Beijing to join his president's security detail. His total loyalty to his leader leads to blind fanaticism driven by his desire to punish the father who rejected him.
All the pieces are in place for a complex and violent denouement as the country inches toward the collision known by its location -- Tiananmen Square.
I was in Beijing and in the Square during those terrible, heady, historic days. Da Chen brought it back to me. By then, he must have left China, but his spirit clearly suffered and struggled with the young people with the simple faith that they could win a victory over a repressive state. They couldn't.
Fact and fiction overlap so seamlessly here that I had to stop reading and take a breath. Da Chen has achieved something that sounds simple but is, in fact, close to impossible: He brings the Western reader into the guts of the conflict, the agonies and the revelations of events that shook the world's largest population in the 35 years after 1960, when Shento and his brother were born. Make no mistake, this is not contemporary history retold. This is magnificent fiction. It transcends the events it chronicles and does what fiction at its best should do: It changes our internal landscape.