Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Gulag, Chinese Style

Book Review: For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu

This year marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests. It seems a very long time ago that the newscasts showed the images of unarmed Chinese students facing armed soldiers, of a solitary man facing down a line of tanks.

In truth, it has been a a very long time - an entire generation has grown up without first-hand knowledge of the events of May and June 1989.

The simple fact that so many people are unaware of or have forgotten these events make a work like For a Song and a Hundred Songs critically important. In the effort to make China (and it's 1.3 billion potential customers) a business partner, the world has turned a blind eye to the political abuses of the recent past, and the present. Liao Yiwu has crafted a work that forces one to look beyond the facade of business as usual, into the lives of the dissidents and political prisoners whose crime was one of ideas.

Much of Hundred Songs is reminiscent of another tale of political prisoners: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Like the prisoners in the Soviet labor camps, Chinese dissidents were held without benefit of trial for vaguely defined crimes like 'hooliganism', or of being 'counter-revolutionaries' Just as in the Gulag, political prisoners are held side-by-side with violent criminals and were often victimized by them. Like Shukov in Ivan Denisovich, Liao Yiwu struggles to maintain his sense of individuality in a system whose sole purpose is to erase it. Toward the end of his imprisonment, when a friend questions his indifference, Yiwu replies "I feel like I have no past". Surviving day-to-day crowds out considerations of both the future and the past.

Hundred Songs gives us much to think about, both in terms of our relations with China, and with the freedoms that we take for granted as Americans. In light of recent events in the United States, perhaps this needs to be considered a cautionary tale. As Liao Yiwu says, "true freedom lies in the heart". Whether as Americans or citizens of the world, we forget that at our own peril.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Slow Slide into the Surreal

Book Review: Stoker's Manuscript by Royce Prouty

Joseph Barkeley leads a somewhat predictable life, grounded in reality and based on facts. He knows old books and manuscripts, he is an expert in his field.

Then, slowly but surely, he finds his life taking a different track into unknown territory. In the hands of novice author Royce Prouty, Stoker's Manuscript has going Barkeley veering off the rails entirely as he pursues the mysterious clues hidden within the first draft of Bram Stoker's ground-breaking novel.

Prouty moves his protagonist into the surreal environment of vampire-ridden Romania with care, gradually adding equal parts history and horror until the atmosphere is thick as blood. And the blood flows thickly as Barkeley struggles with his own past while trying to find a way out of his dilemma.

Through it all, author Prouty makes the transition from civilized reality to the horrific seem almost natural. The reader moves smoothly through the story, only to suddenly find himself surrounded by vampires. It is like taking a casual walk around the block, following well-known steps, only to look up and find oneself in another city, or another time, or another reality.

An excellent first novel, Stoker's Manuscript will have you turning pages through the night. You might want to save your reading for the daytime though.