To Live - a book to die for

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Have you ever been given a book to read by someone, then put it in your bookshelf, until one day you pick it up and start reading . . . and you can't stop?

That's what happened with a book someone gave me to read. The cover didn't really jump out to me, and I thought 'no, not another obscure Chinese book translated into English'. I was wrong.

As soon as I finished the first page I was rivetted. I cancelled all my appointments that day (none actually) and read from cover to cover Yu Hua's book 'To Live'. Originally banned in China, it is now in film form 'Huo Zhe' available from your local pirate DVD store in China, or probably in the foreign films section of your video/DVD store outside China.

Reflecting on the book after the all-day reading session, I couldn't help but think of Thomas Hardy and his door-stoppers which we were forced to read at school. Yu Hua, by comparison, managed to pack in more hardship and doom in a few hundred pages, than Hardy ever achieved in his grim thick novels.

Published in English in 2003, To Live features Fugui, the prodigal son of a wealthy Chinese landowner. At the start of the book his main focus is on gambling, women and drink, and neglecting or abusing his wife and in-laws. When Fugui loses everything, his life changes - for the worse it seems.

I won't spoil the ending or the ups and downs, but suffice to say that Yu Hua was the son of doctors and worked as a dentist before turning his hand to writing. Apparently he decided after five years of looking at mouths that he wanted to see some more of the world. He came across people associated with a cultural centre nearby and realised they didn't have to work very hard, but instead were free to wander the streets. So he started writing, and eventually got a job at the cultural centre, which allowed him to sleep late, wander the streets, and when he had finished playing with friends, write. b

The harsh realities, tragic moments and downward spiral are perhaps buffered by the anesthetic of Yu Hua's good writing. As one critic said:

"I can't imagine what kind of brutal tortures patients endured under his cruel steel pliers."

The epic spans four decades from the 1930s to the 1970s, with the impact of the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution all felt by the characters of the book. Against this backdrop the book explores the themes of political events and individual lives; involvement and detactment; family duty and sense of duty; coping and how to 'squeeze by'.

The events seems to deal most a bad hand, and it is the resilience of the main characters which makes this a tear-jerker. The change from spoilt son of a rich landlord to kind peasant also seems to provide insight into those recent times in China when it was a totalitarian state, making absurb rules against nature and human nature.

While there is a high death toll in this book - and it seems blood features in much of his work - the senselessness and the meaning of the bloodshed makes this more poignant. Amid the chaos and slap-hand of karma there is a message about living a simple life. As the main character puts it:

"It's better to live an ordinary life. If you go on striving for this and that, you'll end up paying with your life."

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