Chen's 'Sounds of the River': Eloquent intimacy goes on

On Books

January 27, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

When I was a kid, it was obligatory to read Pearl Buck's novels, especially The Good Earth, which had been published in 1931 and had led to her Nobel Prize in 1938. Born to Presbyterian missionaries in China, she had returned there as a university teacher after a U.S. education. Her novels were applauded as unprecedentedly authentic accounts of the lives of Chinese common people. Enthusiasm for her work, popular and academic, was propelled by a fascination with the "mysteries of the Orient" and China's role as an ally of the U.S. against Japan.

I have no idea why, but I when I read Buck as a teen-ager at the end of the 1940s, I doubted the authenticity -- felt there was something perhaps contrived, condescending about her romanticized tales.

I have not gone back to Buck. I have not lived in China, and know relatively little about life there -- though I have lived some years in Japan, which, though a totally different culture, at least equipped me to recognize the bottomless, almost infinite distances between civilizations that evolved independently.

All that said, I have now been drawn twice into intensely intimate Chinese life -- and lives -- by an extraordinary writer whose authenticity cannot be doubted. Though I will make no claim of authority on the subject, I have felt in both cases a powerful sense of immersion.

The books are by Da Chen. The first was Colors of the Mountain, published by Random House two years ago, an account of Chen's childhood in a tiny South China town called Yellow Stone, told with astonishing skill, dignity and detail. The second, just out, is Sounds of the River (HarperCollins, 320 pages, $25.95). I found it narcotically entrancing -- almost impossible to put down -- and immensely instructive about the nature of both private and institutional life in China in the period just after Mao.

Da Chen was 16 when he left his village in 1979 to go to the Beijing Languages Institute to study English. His recollection and chronicling of details -- conversations, smells, nervous reactions, flavors, the behavior of strangers, his awareness of his walking into the woods as a 16-year-old to console himself -- are uncanny. He writes with profound affection and respect for his family and their intricate and loving life together.

His capacity for setting a scene, for pictorial description, is strong and often startling. On arriving in Beijing: "In the center of this leafy campus, two smokestacks stood against the blue sky. They were the heart and soul for all who called it home here, like the spear of a chapel in a small village, like a beacon tower by the sea."

But delighted as he was to be there, the school was far from welcoming. The dean detested him for the fact that he came from a family that once had owned land. While Da Chen was being scorned and ridiculed because of his family background, the sons of Communist Party officials were treated as if they were nobility. Class is class! And it is politics.

Chen's almost impeccable poetic pen can occasionally leap out of hand -- to my taste, anyway. But even when he does go over the top rhetorically, it seems to amplify the power of his enthusiasm. Describing his first Chinese conversational English language professor, for example, he writes: "She stretched every facial muscle to get the nuance of each sound, setting an impossible, spotless example of a pure, blue-blooded linguist who rode the wild horse of another language and tamed it under her muscled thighs."

He arrived with the poorest academic credentials in his class. But thanks to grit and determination, he finished first in his class. His future seemed limitless. But Communist Party politics dominated everything and he was not a party member nor an enthusiast. Deans, teachers, department heads, bureaucrats were party activists and almost universally corrupt, demanding petty bribes. His record couldn't be ignored, but politics prevented him from getting a yearned-for assignment to study in the United States or England. He was given a job teaching at the Beijing institution, but found that a dead end.

The most fascinating, and finally moving, material involves the cruel tyranny of the Communist Party system -- the exploitation and pervasive corruption state socialism inevitably produces.

After two years of teaching in the university, a visiting American scholar had arranged for Chen a full scholarship in a U.S. university. As the top student in his class and an effective teacher and translator, he should have been favored for a visa, but students with political clout and few other qualifications leapt ahead of him in both jobs and privileges.

Then the Beijing government became hugely enthusiastic about nurturing relations with Taiwan. Chen had an uncle there who wrote that he would pay for Chen's airfare to the U.S. Chen took this news to the always hostile and corrupt dean. This is part of his deliciously ironic account:

"The dean, a smart political weasel, understood it well. Hurting Da was hurting the Taiwanese uncle. And who knew how powerful his uncle was? (Uncle not powerful at all.) Who knew what his powerful uncle might do? (Probably nothing.) Report to his government, which would report to the Chinese government, which in turn might cause negotiations to break down? Then he, the dean, would get blamed and all hell might break loose. (Baseless paranoia!) A little man thought a little man's thoughts. Fear got bigger. It was time to be good. It was time to suck up."

So Da Chen went to the United States -- where he has remained, going ultimately to Columbia Law School, marrying a physician, practicing law on Wall Street. And writing this compellingly dramatic, moving and informative memoir, which has me eagerly awaiting the sequel.

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