Volume 91, Issue 12

Wednesday, September 17, 1997



The latest book reviews

Baby's got the Red China Blues

Red China Blues: My Long Journey from Mao to Now
Jan Wong
Anchor Books
$16.95 / 395 pp.

When most baby-boomers look back at their actions in the 1960s and '70s, there are only a few minor regrets: a little pot smoking, perhaps a light criminal record and a bad haircut. But imagine how Jan Wong must feel. She picked up and moved to China at the height of the Cultural Revolution, became a raving Maoist and even snitched on people as an informer to the Communist Party. Ouch. Try laughing that one off at a class reunion.

Perhaps that is why Wong's book, Red China Blues, is so enjoyable to read. The author herself seems as mystified as her readers when trying to explain her past. The book feels almost like an exercise in self-therapy for Wong and she thoughtfully invites us along for the ride.

And what a ride it is. In 1972, Wong arrived in China from Canada with misty-eyed idealism, speaking almost no Chinese and believing China to be every bit the worker's paradise it claimed to be. Attending Beijing University, she was at first full of enthusiasm for her newly-adopted homeland. Wong's loyalty, however, began to waiver when she began to see the – well, communist – aspects of China (i.e. the personality cults, the relentless propaganda and the suspicion of outsiders).

As Wong began to look deeper into Chinese society, she soon found that, far from a socialist utopia, it was a police-state where the political elite brutally suppressed dissent, mismanaged resources and executed petty thieves to sell their organs.

Granted, the dark side of totalitarianism is hardly a revelation of earth-shattering proportions; but what sets Red China Blues apart is the way the author gets under the surface and shows us China first-hand as no one has done before. Jan Wong's China is a land of individuals, with very human flaws, hopes and fears; this is quite a refreshing change from the impenetrable, monolithic culture we so often encounter in books.

If for no other reason, read Red China Blues for its moment-by-moment, heart-stopping account of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Wong recounts the event with the immediacy and vividness that made her one of North America's most respected eyewitness reporters, describing how the Chinese army fired volley after volley of shots into the backs of thousands of unarmed civilians. You can almost hear the bullets whistling over your head as you read. Except that, as Wong soberly points out – bullets fired at point-blank range don't whistle.

–Patrick Anderson

The Birds of Prey
John Ralston Saul
Vintage Canada
16.95 / 247pp.

A Canadian film, take Hard Core Logo, for example, can be made for roughly $1 million, be shown on less than two per cent of screens nation-wide, take in a little over $200,000 at the box office and would be considered a huge success.

If this is the way Canada rewards its home-grown culture, then it's no surprise the re-release of the four early novels by John Ralston Saul has received barely any fanfare in the popular press, when it should be considered a national literary event.

John Ralston Saul, perhaps Canada's most intelligent writer, is not as well-known as some of his contemporaries, Michael Ondaatje or Margaret Atwood to name two. Even those purported to be among Canada's well-read may only know him as "That Voltaire's Bastards Guy," but his first novel The Birds Of Prey (first published in 1977) is as good as anything written by Canada's Hollywood novelists... perhaps better. His prose style leaves no loose ends, his observations are painfully accurate, his characters lifelike, and his pacing of the plot is poetically rhythmic, if not musical.

When The Birds of Prey was released in France it immediately became the book people talked about – and with good reason. This is a book that pulls the mask away from the face of French politics and also from a nation's sense of identity. "You may not know, Charles... that every time some important Frenchman is killed in an accident somebody else claims it was an assassination. We are violent in our imagination, even if we aren't in our acts."

Aside from France, Saul has been internationally lauded for the quality of his work, including Italy where his novel The Paradise Eater won him the Premio Lettarario Internazionale. Isn't it time Canadians pay one of our literary treasures tribute by reading his books by the millions?

If you don't like reading books that make you think, you're probably a lost cause, but I suggest you try reading something by Saul anyway; it could improve your IQ maybe 10 or 12 points. If your mangled and bescribbled Garfield bookmark with the yarn tassel missing is still suffocating between the pages of The Hunt For Red October because you thought Sean Connery was really cool in the movie, then you might as well give up now, but if you truly wish to be intrigued by a political novel, put Tom Clancy back on the unreadable shelf where he belongs and rush out to buy John Ralston Saul's The Birds Of Prey and read it as soon as possible.

–Paul Vermeersch

To Contact The Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997