Monday, November 21, 2011

Colin Thubron's "Behind the Wall": Book Review

After reviewing his excellent "To a Mountain in Tibet" (2011) and "Shadow of the Silk Road" (2007), I enjoyed this 1987 account of his 1985 Chinese travels. Thubron's unsurpassed when recounting the distance between foreigner and native, observer and participant in the passing scene. Without exaggeration, every other page of these three hundred could serve up an eloquent example of his prose and his perception.

I'll share a few of my favorites. He visits a Beijing classroom: as a teacher plays on a harmonium, the children chorus "like mechanical birds: vivacious and dead." (21) In Nanjing, interviewing a priest, he seeks to get past his persistent divide, as he "sensed that my questions were subtly irrelevant to them, my Western preoccupation with suffering and conscience merely a measure of my isolation, a sign of my not understanding." (98) 

This struggle permeates his finely crafted narrative; he focuses on what he sees rather than who he is or what he's done (his books tend to be quite reticent), but he filters all he sees through his p-o-v, so we ponder what he does. It's not egocentric, somehow, but universal in his reflections on his fellow men and women. As with his Silk Road book (more than his Tibetan trek), he may annoy those readers wanting a less acerbic, or more romanticized view, but for me, cross-referencing this with Ma Jian and Gao Xingjian as native travellers at the same time exactly, their accounts align with his about his criticisms.

The lethargy, staring, constant scrutiny, relentless rudeness, noise and filth of China gain frequent attention. Dissimulation, helplessness, disdain, and catcalls follow his every move, it seems, over much of his ten-thousand mile journey, as "above the charming photographs on the identity badges of waitresses, the real faces are a rockery of sulks and scowls. Their lidless eyes have been invented for avoiding yours." (111)

In Suzhou gardens promising peace, he finds bad art galleries, shops, and photographers everywhere. "A glaze of cigarette stubs glazed the lakes." (135) Yet, in this same visit, he hears a young woman tell a blind man of what she claims to see: dragons writhing on the water, lions on their backs; lions roaring over the lake.

Similarly, he balances wit with despair, as in his woeful description of his meal of "braised wildcat" he must endure in Canton; he redeems himself later by liberating an owl from a horrific caged city market of dogs, cats, and birds as some recompense. He listens to those he suddenly shows up among, and he tries to hear their tales of terror, not long after the end of the Cultural Revolution. He also attracts attention, gawking, standing out as an alien before questioners who ask him how many children Charles Dickens had, or tell him that their father studied math at Cambridge. 

He shows up in a peasant's rubber grove near the Mekong. "Momentarily I saw myself in his eyes--taller than anyone he had ever met, uncannily pale-haired, and fattened by the mystery called England." (222) Thubron's basic Mandarin allows him some deeper insight into common humanity. And, as a "foreign devil" he can sometimes hear what natives might not dare to say aloud. Later, a young lecturer opens up to him about a failing marriage and a lost love: "It would be like confiding in a star or a tree." (267) 

Still, much of the beauty of this account lies in the distance in a crowded country, the scenes glimpsed as he passes. On a train into the hills of Fujian:
"Beyond my window, as the afternoon wore on, the mountains unlocked isolated valleys which the falling sun varnished into the illusion of peace. Village roofs dipped and swung above the green stairways of their terraces. Whitewashed walls were bright and unreal in the silence. Momentarily I thought: how beautiful. And I gazed at them with the acquisitive longing of someone hunting a weekend cottage. But they were filled by a rude poverty, I knew: their people were here in the train, bellowing convivially together. So I would greyly discount these idylls, and return to my book. But in the next valley the dream would reassert itself, and the glimpse of a tiled roof under a white wall incite again a childish mirage of Elysium." (167)

That masterful passage shows Thubron's power. Read this journey across China to find out much more in similar scenes. Highly recommended by an acerbic but wise writer at the peak of his talent. (Compare my reviews of two others who wrote of the same year, 1985 or so, in China: Ma Jian's travels in "Red Dust," and Gao Xingjian's philosophical novel "Soul Mountain."; posted to Amazon US & 5-21-11)

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