Saturday, April 9, 2011

Xinran's "Sky Burial": Book Review

A Chinese woman writing about the invasion of Tibet: this intrigued me. As my sympathies lie not with the PRC, however, I feared sentimentality in what the cover subtitles "an epic love story of Tibet." Epic, yes, even this book's the size of a prayer missal with large print over barely 200 pages. Xinran, after her investigation of women in China today, takes one woman's tale and dramatizes it.

It's a spare saga fitting the spaces it enters. The Red Army medical officer in the wake of the conquest of Tibet finds herself searching for her husband to learn of a fate that a cryptic notice seems to not solve but rather deepen. Isolated with no knowledge of the language, reliant on a Tibetan who knows Chinese, Shu Wen survives as if one of the natives. But, relegated to a largely detached, silent situation, she "sometimes felt like one of the family's animals: protected, gently treated, watered, and fed, but set apart from the human world." (73)

Wen turns slowly Buddhist, but this is very understated. As she lacks often anyone even to talk to for long stretches, she turns inward, almost an internal exile relying on her own wits and the kindness of strangers. This transforms the narrative into a more visual, sensed story than one full of dialogue, reminding me more of cinema at times.

The account moves languidly but quickly, in the sense that decades pass and with a jolt it's suddenly not the end of the 1950s but the middle of the '70s. Time seems to suspend amidst the remote locale where she lives with her protectors, and then, with an encounter with Chinese, her quest resumes to find the fate of her husband. To keep track of her thoughts, in a book of philosophy and on the back of his photo, she writes with the only tool she can scrounge. "The color from the stone pencil was very faint but the stone made such a deep impression that the words were engraved on Kejun's smiling face." (84-5)

Such imagery subtly transmits the connection between her past and present, and the work, modestly, tries to create such a bridge that spans two vastly disparate cultures, ways of thought, and mindsets. It gets a bit didactic when the Chinese who Wen meets try to explain to her the varying "official" reactions to the flight of the Dalai Lama or the stalemate between the two nations, but this may be necessary material for her Chinese readers unfamiliar with nuances in the Communist policy, or foreign readers needing a bit of context. The book introduces a small bit of Tibet to the large Chinese and international audience and it also makes a moving plea for cooperation between the two peoples.

I get the impression that Xinran worked this conciliatory message gingerly but firmly into her story, and I wondered if this related to why she now lives in London. She softens the impact made by the Chinese upon Tibet, and she does try to balance her tale with mentions of Tibetan reprisals and the fear that such actions created among the Chinese enemy. I suspect she tried as much as possible to soften the edges and present a marketable novel to her comrades that she left behind. There lurks perhaps here yet another "true story" blurred into fiction.

After I finished it, I found out it's "based on a true story." It's rather shadowed in the marketing of this title if it's fiction or fact, in fact, and I needed to look up the library classification. Knowing it's rooted in reality encourages me to hope that the subject of the work did indeed contact, as the closing appeals, the author at last. That may provide the happy ending that readers might expect. (Posted to Amazon US 4-28-10)

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