Wednesday, April 4, 2018
Skimming the Shallows
Let me begin by saying that I don't care for the picaresque genre.
I first became aware of that fact when reading Candide in college. While everyone else seemed to be having a rollicking good time, I couldn't understand what was so great about a novel that moves quickly from scene to scene, contains broadly comic elements (such as the woman with only one buttock), recounts horrible events (shipwreck, earthquake, Spanish Inquisition, etc.) without giving them their due, and concerns itself mostly with justifying the questionable behavior of the narrator, all while apparently desiring to be taken seriously. It seemed more like a sketch of a novel, with fast paced narration that moves quickly and superficially over events.
Su Tong's The Boat to Redemption could be described in the same way, with the added twist of being set in cultural revolution-era China. Narrator Dongliang, a young man bearing the nickname Kong Pi ("empty ass" or perhaps "empty fart," as one review suggests), lives with his disgraced father on a boat that's part of a barge fleet. The people who inhabit the barges make up a separate society from those who live on land, and Dongliang's forays into the town are complicated by the social friction between the two groups.
Dongliang lives in the shadow of his disgraced father, who bears the dual shame of making his reputation on being the son of a famous revolutionary martyr and then being found out as a fraud, and being discovered to have had extramarital affairs with various women. In response, Dongliang's father attempts to cut off his own penis, resulting in a mutilated member that's the frequent subject of commentary throughout the story, even as he seeks the reinstatement of his good reputation.
Against this backdrop, Dongliang falls in love with a beautiful orphan girl, Huixian, who joins the household for a while. The romance never comes to anything, however, as Huixian is discovered by a party official as the perfect person to play Li Tiemei, a hero of the revolution, in local pageants. Her waxing, then waning celebrity takes her away from the boat people and eventually lands her in the town barbershop with an uncertain future.
If all this sounds complicated, it is. It's also sprawling and boisterous and undisciplined, moving quickly from scene to scene of confrontations, chases, brawls, and other adventures without providing much depth of feeling. There are plenty of insults, sexual comments, and descriptions of the seedy side of life, but they generate little engagement. Even Dongliang's father's plight, while sympathetic, seems played for laughs.
For a while I kept thinking that something more resonant would happen -- Dongliang seems to have a connection with the river, for example, hearing its voice calling, "Come down, come down" -- but while the river's call is important to the story, the full effect never materializes. At least Candide ended with a memorable phrase that could be interpreted with multiple depths of meaning: "Cultivate your garden." This tale, unfortunately, stays on the surface.
Panicked, I turned and ran. But Huixian took off after me. I knew why she was chasing me, but not why I was running away. Whatever the reason, by overreacting I caused a bizarre scene, as people on all the barges started running, turning the fleet into a rocking runway. They were chasing each other up and down the sides of the barges, shouting, "Don't run! Don't run!" But no one stopped. I kept looking back, afraid that Huixian might fall in. I needn't have worried, for she had an astonishing sense of balance. Like an avenging demon she kept after me, her feet virtually flying on what for her were unfamiliar boats.
I calmed down once I made it back to barge number seven, where I pulled back the tarp and said to the girl, "Go ahead, look for yourself. Your mama won't be hidden on our boat, unless she turned into a brick. If she didn't, she won't be in there."
The people who had been running after Huixian stopped when they reached our barge and watched as I jumped down into the hold and started tossing the damaged bricks up on deck, one at a time. "Go ahead, look," I shouted, "and tell me which one of those is your mama."
Note: This book counts toward the Color Coded Reading Challenge (red) and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2018.