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Monday, 11 February 2019

Book review: Red Azalea, Anchee Min (1994)

For this memoir and for her other books the author uses her given name first and her family name last, in opposition to common Chinese practice. It would be an understatement to say that the events in this book are dramatic, but you have to start somewhere and with a work as compelling as this one you have to give credit where it’s due or else you can appear as if you have misunderstood the point of the exercise. On the other hand, every Chinese family has stories to tell of the bad years and there is no reason why Min’s story needs to be unduly celebrated. So the critic is, if you like, faced with something of a dilemma.

Min is a clever writer however and the task of ascribing talent is easily completed. Her story is told often in very short sentences that serve to heighten the suspense the reader feels at different points in the narrative. There is a breathless, urgent quality to the tale that makes it especially compelling.

The story takes the reader initially out of Shanghai, where Min was born into an average family. Her parents had several children and Min is sent to a collective farm named Red Fire Farm when she is a teenager. The story of how she survives on the farm take form around the character of Yan, who runs the operation, and the second-in-command, Lu, who wants more power and influence. Min and Yan become lovers but one day as she is in the fields, Min is questioned by some visiting dignitaries and she is given a place at a film academy, so she goes back to Shanghai to live.

Min is given the task of preparing for an important role: the lead of an opera titled ‘Red Azalea’ that has been commissioned by Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. One of the teachers takes a liking to another young woman, named Cheering Spear, who is also being considered for the role, and Min is outperformed at an audition. She is then given the job of set clerk (continuity) and secretly spends time smoking cigarettes in an empty room where she licks her wounds. There, one day, she is spoken to by a man who turns out to be the Supervisor, the man in charge of the production. They become friends and eventually Cheering Spear is replaced in the lead role by an exultant Min, who visits the Supervisor’s lavish residence in Beijing and is given the task of perfecting the lines she must speak in order to play it.

This gives you the bare outline of the plot, something that is quite unequal to conveying the nature of the work at hand. Min spends a lot of time talking about desire and about love and it is in the context of such feelings that her own feelings about her homeland must be interpreted. The long scene that takes place at her parent’s house, when Yan visits so that she can be alone with her lover, who runs a collective farm near Red Fire Farm, is gloriously rendered in all of its details so that you can understand the feelings that Min has for Yan in the light of her new relationship. In fact, the relationship with Yan lies at the core of the drama in so many ways.

One day, while she is still working at the academy, Min goes back to Red Fire Farm to visit Yan because she misses her. She knows that if anyone from the academy found out about her visit, she would be forced to explain herself and her situation might worsen. But she is compelled by loyalty to go back and see Yan in all the pathos of her reduced circumstances, reduced because of the circumstances that accompanied Min’s leaving the farm for the big city. But without such details the book would make no sense. In fact, there would be very little to say if Min and Yan had not been so close.

Min’s relationship with the enigmatic Supervisor also draws nourishment from Min’s relationship with Yan, and she tells him about it one night in a park where they are surrounded by other furtive Shanghai lovers trying to find some privacy in the strict moral environment the Party enforced on the people it governed.

The Party is a silent force at the core of the drama, and although Min must come to terms with it in many ways up to the point where she finally leaves the country to settle in the US, part of her remains to the end, to some degree, unsullied by the idiotic logic of the perverse calculus imposed on people in China at the time by Party policies and agendas and by the unworldly vagaries of Mao’s seemingly endless dicta. Under such conditions, people’s legitimate desires and aspirations were perverted and channelled into bizarre behaviour that on the face of it as expressed in this book has the appearance of a kind of psychopathy.

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