Book Review: 'English' by Wang Gang

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 17, 2009


By Wang Gang

Translated from the Chinese by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan

Viking. 313 pp. $24.95

In this particular case, the old adage "You can't judge a book by its cover" is jarringly true. The jacket of "English" features the face of a darling Chinese boy peeking out from a frame of folded pages from a Chinese-English dictionary. Behind him, within the frame, are hills meant to suggest the majestic Tian Shan Mountains, which serve as a backdrop to this narrative. The boy looks at us from another world, and while you can see only a part of his sweet face, he appears to be smiling. A blurb on the back of the book reads: "The pure friendship between the teenage boy and his English teacher is movingly beautiful . . . "

That's fine as far as it goes, but there's no hint of the unpleasantries that accompany this tale: the storms of tears, the murder, the hideously destructive power of fear, the casual brutishness of the human race, the adultery rooted in loathing, the banality of evil to which humans gravitate with gross enthusiasm and the bad taste that so often accompanies it. I loved this book and can't stop talking about it. But it's wrenching and merciless and, though fictional, rooted in historical truth and based on the life of its author, Wang Gang.

The story is set in the industrial town of Urumchi, way up in Northern China, close to the Russian border. There's a sizable population of the Muslim Uighur tribe as well as Han Chinese. Some of these Chinese are unlucky intellectuals who have been sent here partly as punishment, partly to strengthen the border against possible invading enemies. The Cultural Revolution has been going on for some years, but Love Liu, the boy who narrates this story and is 12 when it begins, never talks about that directly. A grown-up when he recalls the tale, he refers to those times with the cryptic phrase "in those days," which readers may first think of as nostalgia but gradually come to see that "in those days" everyone was on the brink of starvation and terrified for their very lives. The worst may be over, as the story begins. But maybe not.

Love Liu doesn't consciously know much about this. He knows that his father used to be an architect (he designed the National Theatre in town, as well as Love Liu's middle school) but now paints posters of Mao on city walls. He also knows that, over by the East Hill Graveyard, "People were often executed by firing squad." But his real world is in his middle school classroom, where he is flanked by prissy, hysterical Sunrise Huang, a perennial teacher's pet, and the hooligan Garbage Li, who earned his name by picking through garbage to help his family make ends meet.

Love Liu's life is governed by teachers; the kids have stopped learning Russian and now are being taught the Uighur language by Ahjitai -- a mixed-blood beauty, half-ethnic Uighur, half-Chinese. But when English becomes a new curriculum requirement, Ahjitai is replaced by Second Prize Wang, a young man who speaks the language. The boys in class are disconsolate; they've all nourished terrible crushes on Ahjitai, but Sunrise Huang takes one look at the new teacher and falls for him like a ton of bricks. Something like that happens to Love Liu as well. It may be Mr. Wang's gentlemanly ways or his refusal to speak ill of anyone, or it may be the beauty of the new language he teaches. We've all had something like that in our youth -- something that promises to separate us out, to take us into a better world, a place far away from this sometimes excruciatingly dull daily life. It doesn't matter what the object is; the process of getting there is the precious part, the part that's like falling in love.

Despite the rigors of the political regime, love is everything in this novel: Sunrise adores Second Prize Wang, Garbage Li adores Sunrise, and Love Liu adores the beauteous Ahjitai (and the English language). In the generation above them, Love Liu's mother has something going on with the middle school principal; Sunrise's mother has an illicit relationship with Commander Shen, a former war leader; and Ahjitai is relentlessly pursued by Director Fan, an odious flunky of the Cultural Revolution. Love, self-interest or fear propels each one of them. It's not pure or romantic love; it's squirmy and surreptitious. Lust and longing know no boundaries. They have nothing to do with Chairman Mao. But they're all anyone can think about.

Love Liu's parents are a mystery to him. One minute they're kissing him, the next they're whaling him smartly across the face with chopsticks or smacking him or kicking him viciously. The minute after that, they're apt to be sobbing loudly, telling him it's all for his own good. Low-grade violence is everywhere the boy looks: Both Love Liu's and Sunrise's mothers slap Second Prize Wang, accusing him of prurient interest in their children. Director Fan slaps Love Liu's dad in the street. Ahjitai slaps poor Mr. Wang, who is also unrequitedly in love with her. The truth is, they're all at wit's end. The firing squad is waiting right across town. Against a background of sappy love tunes in praise of Chairman Mao, Death literally stalks. It comes, if not by execution, by suicide or starvation or poison.

Second Prize Wang just can't seem to get behind all this. He dresses and acts like a gentleman; he wears cologne. He treats his students with respect. You know he'll be lucky to escape this hellhole with his life, but he's oblivious. He teaches Love Liu the words to "Moon River," and the easy sweetness of that tune takes on a moody subversion. He teaches his students that there is such a thing as a personal life and the legitimate quest for beauty. Second Prize Wang, by his very name not destined to be a winner in society, saves more than one soul in the ratty town of Urumchi.

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