Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

Boat to Redemption

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

Boat to Redemption

Article excerpt

Su Tong. Boat to Redemption. Fiction. Beijing. People's Literature Publishing House. 2010. 294 pages. 36 RMB. ISBN 9787020078493

In his new novel Boat to Redemption, Su Tong once again taps into his rich historical imagination. While his previous novel Poppy House focused on China's land reform, Boat to Redemption explores the theme of bloodline discrimination. In the age of absurdity, bloodlines might bring people overdue respect and honor, or impose on them inescapable guilt and shame. The cultural emphasis on bloodline is an uncontrollable exterior force violent enough to oppress and destroy entire lives. As the saying goes, "As the father, such is the son." The hero of the novel, Ku Wenxuan, was once considered a descendent of a revolutionary martyr, but his identity was later challenged and disproved, and he was thus dispatched to work on a ferryboat on the Golden Peacock River, depriving him of the right to live a decent life onshore. He becomes a reprobate who drifts on the water day in and day out.

Su Tong once said that a person letting out a shriek and jumping offa cliffis not a tragedy. A real tragedy occurs when a person who could have enjoyed a quiet time on the beach ends up burying himself in a hole he has inadvertently dug.

It seems that in Boat to Redemption he has told just this sort of tragic story. After being dispatched to work on the ferry, Ku Wenxuan still indulges himself in the illusion that he is an honorable descendant of a revolutionary martyr. One day as he comes out of the ferry cabin, he is holding a copy of Anti-Dühring in his hand. I'm not sure why Su Tong provides this detail, but it is clear that reading this "encyclopedia of Marxism" does nothing to keep Ku Wenxuan sober and sane. Instead his actions become increasingly insane: He repents of his early life as a womanizer and abruptly decides to castrate himself to avoid making the same mistake again and to maintain the prestigious reputation of his mother, Deng Shaoxiang, an alleged revolutionary martyr. For thirteen years he persists in writing letters to the authorities, asking to reclaim his identity; and every year he makes a fuss over visiting his late mother's grave on the Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, and on the anniversary of her death. Eventually, he carries a memorial tablet stolen from shore by his son and sinks to his death in the river, ending his life to prove his honorable bloodline.

Another feature of Su Tong's storytelling is uncertainty about the past. In the novel, an old man named Yin keeps murmuring: "History is a mystery." For Ku Wenxuan, this manifests in uncertainty over whether he is in fact a descendent of a revolutionary martyr. Worse still, there are inconsistent stories regarding even Deng's birthplace, her parents, and her initial intention to join the revolution. "History is like a little girl. People may dress her up any way they like." And the young girl Huixian is a perfect symbol in this regard.

The character of Huixian was abandoned by her irresponsible parents when she was a child. She has only fragmented memories about her early life, and can hardly tell who she is and where she comes from. History becomes a chaotic mess, and people are bitterly troubled by their dubious origins. Heated discussions regarding uncertainties about the past have been categorized under the name of "new historicism," a trend that has not gone unnoticed by Su Tong, who wrote about ambiguous family history in another of his novels, The Escape in 1934. …

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