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The Road to Redemption’s opening tells you much about the style of book to come:

Most people live on dry land, in houses.  But my father and I live on a barge.  Nothing surprising about that, since we are boat people; the terra firma does not belong to us. 

The writing is simple, almost non-descript, yet it is lifted by the wonderful, lyrical final clause: ‘the terra firma is not for us’.  This was noted by Colm Toibin at the Sydney Writer’s Festival who was speaking of the book and the Man Asian Prize that it won in 2009 in a lively panel discussion entitled ‘Judges & Winners’.  This is no surprise, for he was one of the judges that year.  (It was great to see Colm asking Su Tong to sign his copy of the book, just like any avid fan.)

On the following page, the son, Ku Dongliang, tells us of his concern about the deteriorating health of his father:

I’ve noticed spots on the backs of his hands and along his spine; a few are brown or dark red, but most glisten like silver, and it’s these that are beginning to worry me.  I can’t help thinking that my father will soon grow scales on his body.  He has lived an extraordinary life, and I’m afraid he’s on the verge of turning into a fish.

What a wonderful opening!  Very poetic, very intriguing, a great ‘hook’ so-to-speak.  But this deep lyricism is not sustained.  Instead, we get more of the first line’s characteristics: simplicity in narrative voice lifted by rare moments of lyricism. 

The story is narrated by the 15-year old adolescent Dongliang, who is by western standards very cloistered, and the narrative voice reflects this.  It is set in the Cultural Revolution – the time in which Su himself grew up.  Dongliang and his father have spent the last few years working on barge no. 7 of the Sunnyside Fleet.  When his parents separated, Dongliang had to choose which life he wanted – that of the river or the shore.  The boat people are treated with great suspicion by the shore people and the Party members.  Dongliang doesn’t help himself in this however – he is quite an impulsive character, struggling with adolescence and the shame of being his father’s son.  His father had got into trouble by bedding many of the women on both shore and ship and in an effort to correct his own failings brought shame to himself and Dongliang by mutilating his genitals.  (Darkness is apparently one of Su Tong’s trademarks.) 

Dongliang’s life is changed when Huixian, an orphan girl is pushed to live with the boat people by the Party authorities.  She is spoilt rotten by the family on one of the other barges who bring her up.  As they grow older, Dongliang becomes quite obsessed with Huixian, particularly when she scores a role impersonating Li Tiemei – the heroine of the revolutionary opera Red Lantern.  She becomes a minor celebrity in the district, but her lack of real talent and effort to learn sees her progress stunted.  Without the support of party members, her future dreams vanish, and she instead becomes a barber.  She is now a shore person, and there is a constant struggle for Dongliang to come to terms with the divide of the river and the shore.  It’s a lovely, poetic divide, and a great narrative theme, but unfortunately it becomes a little lost… Why? 

I wanted to love this book and was captivating by its poetic opening.  But then I found myself wading through the next four hundred pages wondering what happened to the writing.  Gone was the poetry; in its place were repetitive images that grated, long-winded scenes, and underwhelming writing.  For instance, Dongliang is given the nickname Kongpi – which is a combination of Kong, meaning ‘empty’, and Pi, meaning ‘arse’.  Empty arse.  This is funny to some degree, but it’s so overused it’s mind-numbing.  

For a lot of the book, the writing is obviously less polished than the opening.  This is somewhat hidden because of the narrative ‘voice’ of the book, but not completely.  Furthermore, the poeticism of the writing comes and goes too.  What is the reason?  Well, I came across Su Tong’s book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (2010).  I went to two sessions where Su Tong spoke.  The first was the panel discussion on literary awards noted above; the second was a discussion between just himself and Linda Jaivin.  One of the points that came out of that session was the English translation.  Linda read the Chinese version and the English translation back-to-back and was appalled over the quality of the translation.  Important sentences had disappeared, chapters had been moved, and the overall elegance of the Chinese version did not fully come across.  This was meant as a compliment to Su Tong’s Chinese version, but of course, we in the audience suddenly felt like we were getting a far inferior version. 

The explanation was that the English translation was taken from his second draft, and not his final draft, as the publishers were anxious to get the book out!  Tong blames himself for this, but the obvious question – which was indeed forthcoming from the audience – was: ‘will there be a ‘proper’ English translation published?’  I was certainly thinking this, but I had already bought the book!  Of course, the point that should have been made was: it was the English version that won the Man Asian Prize and had Colm Toibin singing its praises in the ‘Judges & Winners’ session. 

For me, this issue was summed up in the title of the book.  The book’s original Chinese title can be translated as: River, Shore – a perfect reflection of the divide that conflicts Dongliang.  Now, The Boat to Redemption is no doubt a ‘powerful’ title, but it feels to me as though someone was trying to give it a title similar to the similarly powerful Raise the Red Lantern – the name given to the movie based on his book Wives and Concubines.  I’ve no doubt that translating stories, particularly across vast cultural divides, involves a fair degree of massaging by publishers to ensure good sales.  But something quite tangible has been lost in the title, let alone what has been lost in via translating an unfinished manuscript.  

I’m somewhat troubled by the thought that people won’t read the book because of these issues.  That would be sad, because it could have been (and no doubt is in Chinese) a wonderful story set within a very interesting period of Chinese history.  I had relatively high expectations even with the knowledge that it would be somewhat flawed.  I can’t help but feel I would have loved reading River, Shore in all its poetic, lyrical splendour.  After all, shouldn’t we read the story as the author intended it?  Somehow I doubt we’ll get the privilege.  

The Boat to Redemption receives the lowest rating I’ve yet handed out.  Regular readers will know I err toward generosity in my markings, so this low score really highlights my frustration with this novel.  It should have been better, and, most frustratingly, it probably is!  What a shame.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 2.5/5

The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong

Black Swan

ISBN: 9780552774543

475 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, aka: personal library.

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Another damp day in Sydney saw the close of the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 2010.  Peter Carey is giving the official closing address, which along with many of the sessions will be available from the SWF website.  It was another very interesting day.  This is a long post but I assume that readers can see which session interests them and read those summaries:

1. ‘Portraits of a Lady’ with Colm Toibin and Kirsten Tranter in conversation with the learned Geordie Williamson, in part discussing their work’s (Colm’s Brooklyn & Kirsten’s The Legacy) relationship with Henry James’ famous novel, although the discussion covered more than this, with Colm in particular showing his encyclopedic knowledge of James, his life, and his work.  Geordie opened the session with a quote of Virginia Woolf’s review of (I think) Henry James’ Letters; Colm told the story of how Virginia and her sister (and everyone else in London at the time) wanted to impersonate James.  James was a great friend of Virginia’s parents and was over for dinner one evening and was telling a story in his own unique way, rocking on his chair as he spoke, until he rocked a little too far and fell toppled over, but what amazed Virginia was that he kept talking through the entire descent! 

Geordie asked the authors how it was that they squared with themselves the task of taking on the ‘monolith’ of James.  Kirsten told the story of how The Portrait of a Lady itself was James’ response to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, so this gave her a sense of confidence that such a project was appropriate.  Cue Colm’s very witty reason: he used to work a summer job in the motor tax office, ‘sorting paper records covered in dust and grime and dirt’. Said Colm: ‘In the day, I worked in the tax office, and at night I read The Portrait of a Lady'(!)  He was astonished with the idea of a secret held to the end of a story, and was puzzled and intrigued by James, and what appears on the surface to be the ‘style of morality’ but is really ‘the morality of morality’.  Geordie then asked about the different structure that each author took in their novels, with Kirsten favouring a fairly direct use of James’ structure (with some ‘grafted-on’ mystery elements, as well as changing the scandal from infidelity to the artist’s authorship of her work).  Kirsten purposefully did not re-read Portrait before writing her work, though she did dip into it.  Colm stripped out a lot of the original structure.  He noted that a lot of James’ work is poor, some of short stories in particular (often written quickly for money), but also some of his longer works.  Colm said ‘James struggled to write about the English’, but he did have a gift in his great novels of using a very intimate third person narrative which allows the reader to ‘become the character’.  Colm said James did this very well and Portrait is a great example.  In Brooklyn, Toibin said he limits his protagonist Ellis Lacey’s ‘ambition’, but he allows her the ability to observe events and surroundings with ‘full intelligence’.  A question was asked as to whether Henry James would have written great works had he been openly gay; Colm replied that EM Forster wrote a story which was openly gay but it was very bad because everything was given to the reader, whereas in other works his use of metaphor works, and the same could be said of James.  Another observation of Colm was that James, whilst very wealthy, wrote poverty well.  Colm clearly has both the gift of the gab – and the intellect to back it up.  A very interesting session that covered so much more than the premise allowed.

2. ‘The Boat to Redemption’ – Su Tong in conversation with Linda Jaivin (who also translated).  Another great session.  Su Tong has a wonderfully sunny disposition which came across even through Linda’s interpretation.  Tong’s books have included Wives and Concubines – which was made into the acclaimed film, Raise the Red Lantern – and others, with his latest novel The Boat to Redemption winning the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, making a total of seven novels, and over 200 short stories.  The story is set in the Cultural Revolution – the time in which Su grew up.  He saw people with placards around their necks with their crimes inscribed thereon and wondered what their struggles and stories were.  There is violence in his novels, but he defends this by saying that ‘violence was a part of everyday life.’  Su said he is now very awake to the ‘nightmare and corruption of his childhood’ and all its ‘blackness’. 

Interestingly, Linda noted that the title of the novel in Chinese means ‘River, Shore’ – it is set on a river, its narrator a young boy whose father decided to move from the shore to the river and they haven’t set on land since.  Su Tong’s own parents once lived on an island on the mighty Yangtze River, so for him the river was his world.  Yet the feeling of a river lends itself more to poetry than novels, so writing a story about the river proved a great challenge even for someone with his background. 

Su said that he sees himself as a doctor that looks at the ills of humanity and figures out what needs to be done.  He says it is common in China for doctors to cut out diseased tissue and show this to their families; Tong says this is what he does with society, he cuts out the rotten tissue and shows it to us – a nice metaphor.  We then had quite a funny description of how young people learnt about sex in China, with Linda noting the theme of sexual anxiety that it present in a lot of Chinese literature, including Su Tong’s work.  Mothers commonly tell their children when they ask ‘where do babies come from?’ that they come from the mother’s armpit or they are found on the street.  Su Tong was told he was taken from a boat.  He and his friends found out about sex from The Barefoot Doctor, the book given to rural people who were given very basic medical training.  Says Tong: ‘We studied Mao in class, and The Barefoot Doctor at home. 

We then arrived at Linda’s observation about the English translation.  Linda read both the Chinese and English version simultaneously and was appalled at the differences between them.  Important sentences had disappeared, chapters had been moved, and the overall elegance of the Chinese version did not fully come across.  This was meant as a compliment to Su Tong’s Chinese version, but of course, we in the audience suddenly felt like we were getting a far inferior version.  The explanation was that the English translation was taken from his second draft, and not his final draft, the publishers were anxious to get the book out!  Tong blames himself for this, but the obvious question – which was indeed forthcoming from the audience – was: ‘will there be a ‘proper’ English translation published?’  I was certainly thinking this, but I had already bought the book the other night!  Of course, the point that should have been made was: it was the English version that won the Man Asian Prize and had Colm Toibin singing its praises on Thursday night in the ‘Judges & Winners’ session.  So whilst I have not read it yet and will provide a review soon, I’m aghast to think that there are people out there that wont read it because they feel it is a poor book, and I for one am looking forward to reading River, Shore

3. ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’ with Hugo Bowne-Anderson and Chris Andrews (translator of several of Bolano’s works into English), with chair Don Anderson.  Bolano has captured the imagination of many readers since his premature death with his mysterious and incredibly prolific writing.  Don noted in his introduction that Bolano said ‘magic realism stinks’, but he also said of Garcia Marquez, that some of his novels were ‘perfect’ – and this in a nutshell gives us a glimpse into the elusiveness of Bolano.  Hugo spoke at length about Bolano’s works, observing that either of By Night in Chile or Amulet (see my review), are good ways into his work. 

Chris then gave us a particularly well-constructed talk on what he saw as the five characteristics of Bolano: Energy; Tension; Totality; Ehtics; and, Poetry.  He quoted the opening lines of The Savage Detectives and noted its lack of adjectives as well as the immediate sense of a ‘vibration’ of energy.  Tension is ‘something that Bolano can create out of nothing’, and Chris noted that quite often his short stories, like Poe’s short stories, reveal a hidden structure at the end and what you thought you were reading turns out to be something entirely different.  Yet many of Bolano’s novels eschew endings.  Instead we have very open endings.  Bolano wants to work the reader hard; he attempts to retain a sense of mystery, and wants understanding to be elusive.  In terms of the ‘totality’, both Chris and Hugo noted how Bolano’s works are related and connected.  However, Chris observed that there are many inconsistencies – characters’ reappear in other books but sometimes with different names.  Thus, there is some sense of a plan behind the totality of the work, but not a real plan given all these inconsistencies.  Chris said that these are a small price to pay for the whole.  Ethics: Bolano was quite a moralist in his fiction (if not in life).  His cardinal vice was ‘cosying up to power’, whilst his cardinal virtue is courage – a view that I share wholeheartedly.  Courage in Bolano’s works is often represented by duels.  Finally, poets are everywhere in Bolano’s stories, both as a metaphor for the creative class but also because Bolano himself was a poet before he began writing novels.  Poetry is important to him. 

Chris was asked about the method of interpretation, and gave an interesting insight when he said that often the first translation is very dry and awkward and does not retain the poetry of the original; it takes a lot of work to then arrive at a real sense of the original Spanish in English.  An observation was then made from a member of the audience which the panel agreed with, as do I, when it was argued that had Bolano lived a long life, the sense of a real plan interlinking his entire work may never have been forthcoming, and we would have instead what we have now, a lack of a definitive ending to everything, where, appropriately enough, the session was ended!  Very interesting.  I have The Savage Detectives and 2666 on my shelf, their weight pressing down into the wood, but feel now that I have a much greater awareness of what awaits me. 

4.  ‘Australian Stories’ with Thomas Keneally (Australians – Origins to Eureka), Jack Marx (Australian Tragic), Michael Cathcart (The Water Dreamers), moderated by Richard Glover.  A fun romp through some tall tales, interesting facts, and myths that each author has come across as an antidote to the view in school-children that ‘Australian history is boring’.  Richard opened the session with Mark Twain’s famous quote from his journey to Australia, which Peter Carey used as a quote before his excellent Illywhacker, and which appears in the excellent: The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia (see my review), that Australia’s history ‘reads like the most beautiful lies’. 

There were some interesting observations made by each panelist.  For instance, Jack believed that one Australian myth is that of ‘mateship’ – he felt there is nothing special about Australian male bonds than anywhere else in the world.  Tom noted that one myth is the notion that all aboriginals were ‘supine’ to white settlement.  This was an interesting observation for me, for I am well aware that many of the aboriginals of the day openly resisted.  This notion was explored further after a question on why the stories of violence toward aboriginals goes untold.  Again, I found this an interesting assertion, as I was aware of these stories myself, but perhaps they are untold.  Jack observed that the violence continues today, providing the example of the indigenous man killed a couple of years back on Palm Is by a policeman and the lack of punishment.  Michael’s myth is the notion that ‘everyone died searching for an inland sea’, noting the irony that as far as he was aware, the only man to die whilst searching for an inland sea was a man by the name of ‘Poole'(!). 

All-in-all, the session was proof that there is a myriad of interesting stories that constantly fuel and refuel our understanding of the past, and the idea that those things that are swept under the carpet or assumed to be isolated things in our history, and thus unimportant, are actually rife within the primary records of the day, and it is not hard to find facts and myths and wonderful things if we merely open the page – an apt thought on which to end my musings on the 2010 SWF – thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring, fun, and yes, a little damp, but my mind was definitely expanded. 

Let me know your thoughts.  What were your SWF highlights? 

The D!

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Well the first full day of the SWF 2010 has come and gone and a great day it was too.  (I did enjoy a couple of lunch time lectures earlier in the week at The Mint too).  I went along to four talks today and enjoyed each of them.

1. ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ – with Kath Leahy, David Foster & Jeremy Sims (who stood in for Jack Thompson), moderated by Katharine Brisbane. There were plenty of laughs and each speaker added depth to the discussion, which delved into the history of the accent, its transformation from a prim English accent – particularly in public life and broadcasting, through to the various incarnations we have today, including quite distinct regionalised language and delivery. 

2. ‘Tales of Adversity & Survival’ – with US author David Vann who wrote ‘Legend of a Suicide’ about his father’s suicide, Brenda Walker’s memoir Reading by Moonlight which is one of the books of the month on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, and Ross Fitzgerald, who has battled alcoholism and drug dependency and lived to tell the tale (and many others besides).  Each author spoke about the method in which they addressed tragedy, grief and/or illness, which ranged from quite distant or oblique structuring (Vann) through to the very direct (Fitzgerald).  What was clear was that each method seemed perfect for the story they were trying to tell. 

3.  ‘Performing Words’ – in which Jana Wendt discussed the role of music in their respective memoirs with Anna Goldsworthy (Piano Lessons) and Linda Neil (Learning How to Breathe).  Anna played a couple of wonderful piano pieces from Bach & Chopin, and Linda sang a song she had sung with her ill mother in hospital and then played a violin piece she had written whilst in India watching dead bodies float down the Ganges.  This session was excellent with moving performances & insightful discussion of how music informs both writing and life.  What struck me is how these women grew up with music around them and what a powerful force it has been in their lives, with Goldsworthy describing how her music teacher’s piano lessons taught her so much more than music, including great little gems of wisdom on how to live.  Neil described how her mother was a wonderful singer and would cook whilst singing opera!  This was then juxtaposed with her battle with Parkinson’s which stole her voice.  The emotion in the pieces played by both Anna and Linda was infused with these life-long lessons and knowledge, and it was a privilege to be party to some of their thinking and their gift for music. 

4. ‘Judges and Winners’ – a highly entertaining panel discussion, with Colm Toibin (twice a Man Booker Prize bridesmaid, but winner of many other awards including the Dublin IMPAC & also himself a judge on several major literary awards including the Man Asian Prize), Tom Keaneally (winner of Booker for Schindler’s Ark), John Carey (twice Booker Prize Chairperson, including the year Keneally won), Chinese author Su Tong, (he of Raise the Red Lantern fame, and more recently The Boat to Redemption – winner of the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize), moderated by Caroline Baum, herself a regular judge on Australian literary awards.  This discussion was a lot of fun.  It ranged from how on earth does a judge read circa 130 books in what amounts to just a four-month period in the case of the Booker Prize, which amounts to one book per day.  Astonishing!  I favour ‘close reading’, which is slow, so I’d be toast.  There was admissions of judges leaving the room knowing that the best book (in their opinion) hadn’t won (cue gasps from the audience!), judge’s walk-outs, as well as the inside experience of someone shortlisted for the Booker – with all the rigmarole of the presentation dinner – hilariously provided by Colm.  Colm also provided high praise for Su Tong’s book The Boat to Redemption, which sounded so good I bought it at the end of the session.  Tong gave some rare glimpses into the world of Chinese literary scene, including not only dodgy publishers, but street sellers who would copy out recognised authors’ works and sell them passed off as their own work!  Finally, there was all-round agreement on the announcement of  JG Farrell as the winner of the 1970 Lost Booker Prize for his book Troubles, the first of the Empire Trilogy, decided by public voting, with Troubles garnering a clear win with 38% of the vote.  Colm Toibin & John Carey were effusive in praise for a deserved win. 

I had wanted to go to another talk in the mid-afternoon, but not only was that one full by the time I’d had a quick sandwich, but all the rest were full too – clearly a sign of the popularity of the festival.  Otherwise, it was a very entertaining day, with a smaller number of talks on tomorrow and the weekend to come as well.

The D!

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