Well, this is the first Devon-y, from-the-best-books-list book review that I have done in quite some time. (In the old days, I read mostly literary literature, with an emphasis on world and trendy.) The book wasn’t actually slated to be next, but I am going to China in July, so I have started gleaning from the Asia section of the World’s Best Books List. This is the first one. For what reason? It just happened that way, due to randomizing, prices, finding used copies, etc.
Su Tong is an important figure in 1980s and 1990s writing in China. He writes about a wide range of things, and The Boat to Redemption is about the Cultural Revolution. It was written during a period in Chinese literary history when literature was an experiment, and it is said that his writing in this book is less literary and more straight-forward than elsewhere. As an English-speaker, I have to take what I get in translation, anyways. Boat to Redemption won the Man Asia Literary Prize, and continues to garner general praise.
It was long. I really had to dig my nails in and keep reading, on a couple cross-country bus trips, when I would much rather have jumped over to one of the other books in my bag. It wasn’t horrible, it was just clunky and long, with not very much action or even narrative arc. Also, the story is obsessed with penises. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it just is.
I also felt like I was out of my depth. This is to be expected, as I have limited exposure to Eastern literature and even Eastern culture. I have long found the East interesting, but I could not slip into the language, place, or meta-narrative in the same way I could Shakespeare or even–to a lesser extent–Latin American literature. Of course, we have the internet now, so I could do quick studies of time frame, culture, reception of this book, etc. And I also would not use that as an excuse not to read Asian literature: on the contrary, exposure will make all of this easier and more fluid with time.
Perhaps my greatest struggle with the culture was the word play. The characters’ conversations always seemed to have this sarcastic and nuanced level which I was not able to completely appreciate. This played out most in humor and in debate. I just didn’t seem to be finding the same things funny–or even witty–that the characters were. And arguments? This book was chock full of arguments, which made it difficult for a Westerner, since our mode of arguing and our ethics and logic would lead us to different conclusions, even different “winners.” (To be fair, though, some of this was a result of socio-economic class differences, as well.)
I say it all the time, but I can’t truly love a book if I can’t find a character to love. Every character in this book–including the three main ones–is so deeply flawed that it is hard to root for them or even to feel sorry for them. Despite the title, there is little to no redemption in this story. Maybe The Dead-End Boat to Redemption? The Sunken Ship to Redemption? But by about three-quarters through the book, I realized that not one of the characters had grown, and that I therefore had no investment in them, at all. I despised them for being to static and yet so self-pitying.
I think that my favorite part of reading this book was just noticing the cultural differences. From basic conversation to all the little things, I enjoyed immersing myself in Chinese literature, to see what fundamental differences I could find between my world and theirs. Some stories unite the world’s people, and some bring us to a better understanding of those who think, behave, or believe differently than us. This was definitely of the second type.
I just can’t really recommend this book. It was long and uneventful, painted very few pictures in my imagination, and the characters did not develop, or even change at all. Even though it is considered to be a great of Chinese literature, I can’t imagine there is not better. I’m going to keep reading and see what I come across.