Monday, April 22, 2002

method in madness

Red Poppies, By Alai (translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin). Houghton Mifflin, $25

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in April 2002).

PUBLISHED THIS YEAR for the first time in English, Alai's Red Poppies -- winner in 2000 of China's highest literary accolade, the Mao Dun Prize -- is the story of the rise to power of the "idiot" son of a Tibetan warlord.

Narrated by its idiot-hero, the novel's portrait of a warlike, feudal society ravaged by internal strife and Machiavellian intrigue explodes the myth of a mystical, pacifist Tibet. Still, it is the Chinese who supply the warlords' weapons and direct their battles, always with an eye to the outcome. And while this is not a novel of destroyed temples and rebellious monks, few if any Tibetans welcome the arrival of their Communist "liberators" at its close.

It is a tale told by an idiot, but what does it signify?

Alai, an ethnic Tibetan living in what is now Sichuan province, has said that the model for his idiot-hero and narrator is a legendary wise man who "represents the Tibetans' aspirations and oral traditions." Not interested in accolades, the sage "preferred the wisdom masked by stupidity."

Not surprisingly, therefore, there is an unmistakable method to the madness of Alai's narrator, the second son of the chieftain of the powerful Maiqi clan.

Only the idiot-sage understands his time, foreseeing the end of the reign of the Tibetan warlords as the Han begin to exert more and more of a destabilizing influence in the region. And though he does not dispute his own stupidity, he knows full well that his mental defect is all that protects him from death at the hand of his older half-brother -- who would otherwise consider him a threat to his birthright.

By choosing as his narrator an idiot whose stupidity keeps him alive, Alai invites readers to see the author, too, as one who knows more than he can safely reveal. The world of this novel, after all, is one in which a monk's tongue must be cut out before he can become an historian, in which "you must hurry if you have something you feel you must say about the present, or about the future, because you won't be able to say it after you lose your tongue."

The translation is another fine effort by veteran translator Howard Goldblatt and his wife Sylvia Li-Chun Lin, whose collaborative rendering of Tien-wen's Notes of a Desolate Man was named Translation of the Year (1999) by the American Literary Translators Association. In Red Poppies, the unmannered prose is deceptively simple. Reminiscent of the language of parable, it captures the enigmatic wisdom of the idiot-narrator perfectly.