Monday, October 6, 2008

Red Azalea

I had reviewed “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” last month. I really enjoyed the book but it raised a lot of questions in me that I wanted answered. One such question was about re-education (the concept of sending children from the cities to villages to be re-educated in the ways of the peasants). I was searching for books which dealt with this and I excited when I came upon something that might be the answer. It was a memoir. A book by Anchee Min about her life in China and how was sent to a farm for re-education and how she managed to get away from it. I got the book and immediately sat down to read it.

Plot Summary
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Anchee talks about her childhood. She’s an outstanding student and a hard working daughter, practically being a mother to her younger siblings from the tender age of 5! She whole heartedly believes in Mao’s communism and knows the Little Red Book of Mao’s sayings inside out and even wins prizes for being able to quote from the book. Later in the book, she and a friend test themselves on their knowledge of the book. She gives a quote and her friend gives the page number and the paragraph number. Wow! She even testifies against her favorite teacher because she is asked to by the Party people.

In the second part, she goes to a farm outside of Shanghai. There, amidst other teenagers, she first begins to doubt the ideals that she had believed all along in life. She sees how individualism is punished and she is not sure she likes it. Anchee, throughout the book, NEVER rejects Mao’s teachings or even criticizes them. She only explains how she realizes that life is not as simple as Mao’s teachings. There is so much more to it. She sees a friend go mad and finally commit suicide after being “discovered” while in a relationship with a guy. Her own frustration in being unable to befriend a guy and have a relationship pushes her to experiment with lesbianism with another friend in the farm.

In the third part, she is selected to train for the part of “Red Azalea” in a movie. In this part, she witnesses abuse of power and gets involved in a complex relationship which I am not sure I can call love. These incidences further increase her disillusionment with Mao’s system. By the end of the third part, Mao dies and his wife Jiang Qing is arrested.
Eventually, Anchee moves to the US.

My Thoughts
Well, I liked reading the book for the things that I learnt about life under Mao. I had read Wild Swans by Jung Chang about 3 years ago and after a long time I am re-visiting China. It is scary to see how individualism was condemned so much. I can’t imagine not having my individuality. I can’t imagine a life where what I say/think/do is not something I want to say/think/do but only what I have to say/think/do! How miserable is that!!

Having said that, I have to say that I didn’t like the way the book was written. It was just a narration and did not evoke any feelings in me automatically. Every time I paused to think about it and put myself in her shoes, I could feel resentment rising in me. But nothing while reading the book. I was detached throughout the book. I finished it because I wanted to finish it and not because I couldn’t put the book down! I think this is going back to my review of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. I think it is a talent that a few people have to convert incidences into gripping stories. Just narration of an incident is not enough. Writing a good novel requires so much more than that and I found that lacking in Anchee’s description of her life in China. It was just that – a description. Nothing more! At least that is how I felt about it.
But then again, this was a best seller and did win an award. so obviously a lot of people didn't really agree with me!

There was one thing that I found interesting in the book though. Anchee had not spelt out the names of the characters in the book. She actually referred to them by the translation of their names in English. Her own name meant “Jade of Peace” and it was fun to see how her little brother was named “Space Conqueror” because her father was such an astronomy lover. That was definitely interesting.

I am sure whether I want to call this a great book. It is a memoir so everything said in the book is true and that’s enough reason to read it – to learn more about life in China in the 70s. But I did not find this book very gripping and interesting… so, I am not sure if I should recommend it to everyone. So I leave the choice to you. If you want to read this book, just go ahead and do it.
I tried finding reviews for this, but it looks like this isn’t very popular on the blog-o-sphere. I didn’t really find any review for this. If you have read and reviewed this book and I missed finding your review, just post a comment with a link to your review and I’ll add it to this post!


Nymeth said...

So for someone who'd like to learn more about that period of history in China you'd recommend Wild Swans instead? I've heard great things about that one but the length intimidates me a bit.

It really is a pity that the narration was so...naked? cold? That's something that would probably keep me from truly getting into the book.

Dar said...

Ramya, this sounds as though it's a really good book for learning about China which is important. However, like you, I need a book that captures the essence of what's going on too. I need to feel the characters and what they're going through.

You know after you read a good book like Half of a Yellow Sun it's sometimes difficult to love another soon after. Do you find that too?

Ramya said...

@nymeth- of course!! i would recommend Wild Swans to ANYBODY!it is a fantastic book and i loved it!:) you HAVE to read it!!:)

@ dar - you hit the nail on the head dar.. i went back to my reading list and realized that i haven't enjoyed two serious books in a row! i guess that is when you need chicklits!

Anna said...

Thanks for the honest review. I'm not big on memoirs, and the feeling of detachment turns me off from reading it. If I'm going to read a memoir, I want to feel something while I'm reading it, and I want it to be well-written. I guess I'm just picky. ;)

Diary of an Eccentric