Little Gods by Meng Jin

Book Review | Little Gods by Meng Jin

Liya is born on the last night of the infamous Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in Beijing, on June 4th, 1989. Her mother is the enigmatic and ambitious theoretical physicist Su Lan, a woman with ‘an extraordinary mind.’ Her father, Li Yongzong, vanishes into the night.

Seventeen years later, Su Lan has died, and Liya travels from America, where she has been raised, back to China. She is there in an attempt to find her father and come to understand her mother, dissecting the complicated relationship with a difficult character who she ‘never ceased to feel strongly – strongest – about’. It is in this multifaceted and multivocal novel that we experience Su Lan’s life refracted through those who knew her: Liya, her daughter, her old neighbour Zhu Wen, and the stories two of her male schoolfriends who vied for her affection.

‘What strange torture it was for Su Lan to be limited to a linear experience of time. Imagine being constricted in space, a cartoon drawn on a page. This was how Su Lan related to time: as a prisoner. She was determined to rewire her brain so it could comprehend – and eventually intuit – reality as it actually was. In this reality time was more complex than we could imagine; far from static, it might be bent and twisted and tied in knots.’

There is a brilliance in which Meng Jin enables the reader to experience Su Lan’s theoretical rendering of time through the structure of the novel. We weave back and forth from 1980’s Beijing to the 1960’s Zhejiang countryside, in the crumbling remains of famine and Maoism, with brief interludes in 1990’s America – and later, a collapsing of time and space and memory. But whilst Su Lan and Liya are immigrants to the US, it is China and Chinese geopolitics, society and history that are at the heart of this novel. Having spent time living in China, the dissection and representation of contemporary history as seen through the central character relationships and experiences was, for me, the most compelling part of this novel.

‘It was in the midst of this restlessness that the student democracy movement began. On the streets I heard impassioned speeches, beautiful and moving phrases, words put together for the purpose of motivating people to act. In the newspapers I read furious debates. My consciousness lit up.’

Su Lan’s desire was to be untethered from the past and the bounds of linear time. ‘My mother did not like to talk about the past,’ Liya tells us. ‘But there are things you know without being told, the knowledge somehow baked into the making of you.’ But a desire to shake off the shackles of history plagues Liya, even as she undertakes her pilgrimage to the land of her birth. ‘I didn’t want my feet tied up in history,’ she says. In a way, modern China is steeped in history and tradition – and yet the relentless pursuit of progress lends itself to an erasure of history. When Liya traces her roots back to a Beijing address from an old letter, she finds the apartment of her birth marked for demolition. On returning at the end of her trip, the building is nothing but rubble.

Little Gods is an astonishing debut, with an accomplished grasp on a multi-layered form. The characters are deeply flawed and we are denied an understanding of their true motivations and an omniscient version of events. And whilst uncovering mystery is a central part of the story, it’s best not to expect a resolution – at least not in the way you might expect. But it’s absolutely a moving, complex and affecting exploration of heritage, motherhood, ambition, and history.

4.25*

Read if you enjoyed the 2006 film Summer Palace, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng for the complex mother-daughter bonds and exploration of immigrant identity.

Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz

Book Review

‘The Street of Eternal Happiness is two miles long. In the winter when its tangled trees are naked of foliage, you can see past their branches and catch a view of the city’s signature skyline in the distance…’

Author Rob Schmitz is an American journalist who lives on 长乐路, translated as the Street of Eternal Happiness. This may be just one, insignificant road in the vast sprawling metropolis that is Shanghai, but the residents here and the stories they have to tell encapsulate the wide spectrum of what it is to live, hope, suffer and dream in modern-day China. These are real people, these are their real stories, and Schmitz tells them with such dexterity, sensitivity and power, that I defy you not to be moved reading this book.

In a city that is forever looking forward – in a country that forever moving forward – the stories along the Street of Eternal Happiness allow us to look back, through the foggy lens of history. It’s no secret that China silences parts of the recent past, as good as obliterating them from the history book – but you can’t silence memories.

In one of the many tales we are told, Schmitz is handed a stack of letters, discovered in an antiques shop on the street. Written between Wang Ming and his wife Liu Shuyun. The letters were addressed to a residence on the street, where Liu was living at the time. The letters begin in the 1950s: Wang has been sentenced to serve time in a labour camp, somewhere in the wilds of the Tibetan plateau. Thousands of miles away, on the Street of Eternal Happiness, Liu raises their 6 children alone. Through the letters, spanning four decades, Schmitz uncovers their stories; the brutality of life out in Qinghai, in the midst of the Great Leap Forward and the deadliest famine in known history, how Wang Ming is subjected to ‘re-education’ in order to crush his capitalist thoughts, how inmates are forced to eat worms, grass, and when things get truly dreadful, the organs of other inmates, in order to survive. Liu is suffering in Shanghai – the association with her husband, a ‘counterrevolutionary’, mars the family in shame and subjects them to constant harassment, with the threat of eviction, imprisonment or worse constantly looming over them.

This is in living memory for a lot of people. And when you compare the China of then to the China of today, it seems incredible how much has changed. Another resident Schmitz meets is CK, who tried to kill himself at the age of eleven after his parents separated. Now a twenty-something, CK runs a successful Harmonica business and a unsuccessful sandwich shop, constantly reinventing himself anew, with fervent optimism. It would be naive to suggest that anyone is truly free, but Shanghai – in many ways a microcosm of modern China – offers up to the youth freedoms that are beyond what previous generations could have ever imagined.

Schmitz isn’t writing an epic tale of China’s history. That’s not what this is about. It is simply the lives of ordinary people trying to live. I spent a year and a half living in China, in a city not too far from Shanghai. Schmitz doesn’t sugarcoat anything – yes, China is in many ways a brutal and repressive state – but there is also hope, and joy, and possibility. I don’t think I could put it better than the author does, when he says:

It would be a while before all 1.3 billion chinese would feel equal in their pursuit of happiness. But when I considered what China had gone through in the twentieth century, I found it hard to be pessimistic … Who would have thought that, fifty years after such violent revolution and catastrophic famine, the Chinese would have enough spirit left in them to be able to dream, much less have the means and freedom to try to pursue them?

Ultimately, it’s a beautifully told account of lives in a restless city – and the way in which each person navigates their own path, in pursuit of their own Chinese dream.