Monday, 25 March 2013

The Red Azalea, by Anchee Min

A book for my book club, the Red Azalea by Anchee Min came with loads of appreciation from the literary circles.  I was really intrigued to read about the broken childhood of a girl in Mao's China.  
A memoir that would reveal the poverty behind the extravagant curtains and the truth behind the lies of the Chinese regime of the time.

While the book did deliver on its promise, I was not mesmerised with its writing.  While I wanted to be swept away into the feelings of Min of the disasters that befell herself and her family, I could just witness the situations one by one, from childhood until she leaves for the USA, without any sense of emptiness, any sense of stolen childhood -- something I thought I would find in this book.

Min wrote the book in English, a foreign language for her (I assume with some slight editing).  While I admire her for this enormous task, I immediately wondered whether a book in Chinese with a professional translation and editing would convey her messages more truthfully .  The language she uses is very simple, with sentences chopped and very little use of grammatical marks to make reading flow.

We start the journey with Anchee being a little girl in Shanghai, witnessing her family being continuously forced to live in meaner living quarters both under threat of other tenants but also as punishment by the authorities.  The description is raw, which I assume relates to the rawness of the situations but maybe also to a limited vocabulary - this is something that does not leave my mind as I continue reading.

The sentences are extremely short and I do not get to get lost in the book.  I have read other memoirs, of about the same amount of rawness, yet there I could jump into the world and live the situations together with the author.  Not in the book.  I am forever the reader of a book about the author - I'm always on alert, always conscious of my reality, never lost...

The first part is already indicative of the abuse of power in a totalitarian regime.  While in the beginning she believes in Mao and becomes an excellent student, she soon realises the lapses in the system:  her mother is punished for basically being sick, and a favourite teacher is tried for espionage - and young Anchee is to testify against her.

After part 1 I took a break.  And to think whether I wanted to pick up the book again to continue reading.  I persevered - because of the book club, where I do not like to be the one who is not aware of the plot...

Part 2 finds an adolescent Anchee being sent to a farm, which is described rather than a labour camp.  She is fazed with one of the superiors there and so gets back on track on her belief in Maoism.  Still, the reality hits her hard when she witnesses a friend have a nervous breakdown and eventually commit suicide - again abuse of power is the cause.  The language remains simple, yet with plenty of swearwords (not to my liking, I'm afraid) - there are still times when I get frustrated with reading the book and I think - is this intentional?  Is this how I must feel the desperation, the cruelty, the immorality?

Part 3 finds Anchee, a young woman, return to Shanghai to train as an actress.  Her disbelief in Maoism continues and she falls in and out of favour of her superiors, with the end result of her working as a clerk.  The book ends with the death of Mao, and with Min coming to the USA in the mid 1980s.  Again, for me, Min remained inaccessible.  By now, I'm so used to the overly tainted descriptions that I'm ashamed to say I can't be bothered.  Perhaps this is how Min herself feels - she's been through so much, she's seen it all, she's witnessed enough for a lifetime that she just can't be bothered anymore.  She's hardened up and she has risen a survivor...

On the whole, I would say this book to have been a personal account of events in Mao's China.  But I would not say I read a memoir.  I could not see through Min's writing, I could not feel her pain and suffering.  And if one wants to transfer their experience to others and provide a lesson to be learned (whatever this may be), I feel they should attract the attention of their readers from the beginning till the end - in a good way.

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