|Apr/May 2002 Book Reviews|
Picador, Macmillan, (April 2002) 227 pages
ISBN: 0 330 48087 1
He was the only round-eye on board, but nobody noticed.
Nobody noticed, partly because this Westerner had lived long enough amongst Chinese peasants to have become like them in his manners, his movements, even his thoughts. We are told, in the first pages, that his name is Jim Fraser, but almost everything else we learn about him is learned through his actions and the reactions of others. He remains almost faceless—an odd, small figure, in a culture to which he is alien and in which he is just one more insignificant speck in the flow of history.
We see that history—thirty-five years of the vast cultural changes which took place in China after the Korean War—only as it affects the people of the small Miao village where Fraser eventually comes to live after deserting from the UN army at the end of that war. Eighteen-years old, he hid in the fields and surrendered to the Chinese soldiers, became sick, was imprisoned in a clinic near the Miao village and, when he recovered, was surprisingly released to live with two of the villagers.
This remarkable book tells his story in a spare, blunt style which draws you into a history human and compelling. One of the great strengths of this book is that Smith allows the reader to experience the village and its people with Fraser, to see odd things happen without understanding them or being able to ask, and to know about the changes happening in the rest of China only in the random, fragmentary way that people in a remote, mostly illiterate, minority group would know of them.
As the events of the Cultural Revolution affect the nearest town, young people wearing red armbands begin to appear in the area. And as Party policies are implemented, the traditional farming life of the villagers becomes more difficult. The book is not focused on history but on the few villagers Fraser becomes close to. Their lives and his change as their world changes, as political unrest grows, and as they become more and more involved with things outside the village. Eventually, Fraser find himself fighting again—this time with a group of Red Guards.
What comes through most strongly in this book is the strength of the will to survive. The horrors which the Cultural Revolution brings to the ordinary people are simply endured or participated in, according to circumstances. They are part of the need to survive and there is little choice. Culture, custom and superstitious belief are shown to lie behind some of the most horrific acts, but there is no moralizing or comment—just bare descriptions, which are no less horrific for that.
Only towards the end of the book are some things explained and, were it not for Smith's "Afterword," the underlying theme of germ-warfare and genetic experimentation which then becomes apparent might be dismissed as too fanciful to be frightening. Smith's narrative shows the actions of people from both Western and Eastern cultures. His "Afterword" outlines the research he undertook and the facts on which some of the things in this book were based and they are what makes Fraser's story terrifyingly relevant to our own lives.
This is a beautifully written, sensitive, powerful and unusual book, for which Smith deservedly won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2001.