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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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