Monday, 9 January 2012

Book Review: The Ancient Ship

The Ancient ShipThe Ancient Ship by Zhang Wei

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the last few years, I've had an increased interested in modern Chinese fiction, which is probably at least partly due to the fact that my local library is practically next door to the Sheffield Chinese Community Centre and features an unexpectedly large selection of Chinese language books. I'm sure I've read about 6 or 7 novels in this time either translated from Chinese to English or else written in English by Chinese expats. For the former, I find one ongoing problem: translation. I know nothing of Chinese, but some translations, by dint of the fact that they are clouded with awkward phrases and ambiguity or else nonsense, make it clear that the Chinese language is rich in metaphor and double meaning. Inevitably this makes me regretful that I'm reading a translation.

That said, especially considering its length, The Ancient Ship is well translated by Howard Goldblatt, to the best of my understanding. By that I mean that, while the narrative is dense, it is not made cumbersome by the inherent difficulty in translating artistic MEANING, as opposed to just words. Hats off there, then.

Like a few others who have reviewed this book on this site, I had some difficulty with the first third of it. It is nonchronological, and I have only a very little knowledge of modern Chinese history, so understanding what was happening to the village of Wali in a wider context wasn't that easy. The fact that I carried on reading past this point in spite of the challenge says a lot about the beauty of the writing, and the drive of the story.

The middle of the book very suddenly and briefly delves unflinchingly (cliche, but very accurate term) at the misery in the countryside brought on by the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution. The violence and suffering is made more shocking by the fact that the rest of the story is about the normalized lives of the survivors, some of whom abused each other horrifically or who witnessed incomprehensible atrocities, only to find themselves continuing to live for decades amongst each other as neighbors.

These are the themes, but the narrative drive is the economic change from agrarianism to collectivism to the weird modern Chinese mish-mash of oppressive communism and free market capitalism that is now in place. It follows one generation of siblings through it all, including their resignation, indignation, action and passivity to it. It's intense, and I found that it got better and better right to the last page.

Two aspects of it were troubling, but not because of the writing. One was the constant self-identification of all characters with their clan. Everything they did was for or as a result of the history of the clan. Or in defiance of the clan. This was hard for me to understand because it's so different from my own upbringing, and it sparks a lot of thought on the obstacles to progress that clannishness creates. I'm not sure if this was a question Zhang Wei intended to raise or whether he took for granted that this was (is?) just the situation in China.

The other aspect that was very troubling was the abusive relationships between Jiansu and his girlfriends. He has one girlfriend who is a co-dependent type, to whom he makes various casual, unkept promises, and whom he generally walks all over. He has another girlfriend whom he threatens, hurts, and rants like a lunatic to. There is a lot of moral ambiguity from the other characters about this that made me unsure where the line was in the micro-society we are reading about.

In any case, this was very throught-provoking and rewarding to read. And long.

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