Howard Goldblatt,
Sylvia Li-chin Lin,

(Houghton Mifflin)
Red Poppies is the story of one of the ruling families of the Tibetan/Chinese border tier of states. The time is the early 20th Century, and the tales ends with the coming of the Chinese Communists in 1950.

It is a primitive time and place and people --- and our story is a primitive one, replete with magic pills and feudal curses and hunger and prostitution and starvation and murder and marriages and wars entered into to gain territory and power, coupled with beheadings, public whippings, the cutting out of tongues, the slicing off of hands or feet. (Our culture's present romanticizing of ancient Tibet ignores the routine brutality of the ruling classes; see Ilya Tolstoi's accounts of pre-WWII Travels in Tibet.)

Chieftan Maiqi rules a large area in these Tibet-China borderlands, and the story is told by the Young Master, his youngest son --- routinely called the Idiot. It begins with his falling in with the serving girl Zhouma, who teaches him what he must know to be a man: she takes him to the place where the newly planted red opium poppies are growing; she also takes him to the place where the sun don't shine:

    I entered a patch of darkness surrounded by brightness, searching for something as if I'd gone mad. She was too big for my still growing body. Poppies were broken, the milky substance oozing from the injured stalks covering our faces. It was if they were ejaculating, just like me.

Young Master tells us that not only is he called an idiot, he thinks he might well be one:

    Luckily, because of my low intelligence, I suffered little, if any harm at all. An idiot has no strong loves or hates, and can see nothing but basic truths. That, in turn, keeps his fragile heart relatively safe from harm.

This idiot card is played throughout Red Poppies, and it is done with skill and charm. By choosing a fool for a narrator, the author guarantees a story that will, supposedly, be free of cant. Those who claim to be idiot can be forgiven the things they do or say, for one has to be a complete fool to tell the complete truth.

King Lear's idiot can tell the old man what a fool he is, and not be beheaded in the process. Doestevsky's idiot --- the idiocy of gran mal --- can get away with an uncanny gentleness as honesty because he is considered in some way damaged. Alai's idiot is a wise man hiding behind the shield of fool, but when it comes to questions of being the fool, he often plays wise.

For instance, his brother Danzhen Gongbu is believed by all to be the one who will inherit the kingdom. "To him," says the Young Master, "both Father and I were idiots."

    We quickly got wind of this comment, which he had made to those closest to him, but Father said nothing until he and I were alone. "Is your brother smart," he asked, "or is he just someone pretending to be smart?"

    I didn't answer.

    To be honest, I couldn't tell the difference. If someone knew he was smart, of course he'd want everyone else to know. Father's question reminded me of the other question he asked so often: Are you an idiot or just someone pretending to be stupid?

§     §     §

Red Poppies takes a while to crank up --- it occurs on page 64, if you want to know exactly where --- but once it does, we come to be caught up in this early 20th Century tale of the Medieval borderlands between the Han Province of China and Tibet, for author Alai is no idiot at all when it comes to building characters and moving plot along. And the Young Master may be idiot, but when his father sends him up into the Northern Territories, he manages, without any supervision (and without any wars) to build a city for trading with the other chieftans --- and even manages to bring off marrying Tana, the most gorgeous daughter of Chieftan Ronggong. He thus unites the two territories by making love not war.

And he has to be shrewd to deal with his enemies. This is the innkeeper, whose brother has vowed to kill the Chief of the Maiqis because of an old blood-feud. The Young Master says to him,

    "I have the feeling I've seen you someplace."

    He said, "No, you haven't."

    "I don't mean you, I mean a face like yours."

    "I know what you mean," he said as he stood beside me with the jug, refilling my bowl every time I drained it..."

    "Your face is the same as the killer's."

    He smiled, looking sad and a bit embarrassed. "He's my younger brother. He said he wanted to kill you, but in the end he didn't. I told him that our enemy is Chieftan Maiqi."

    I asked him if he'd laced the wine with poison. He said no. "I won't kill you unless your father and brother are no longer alive..."

    That night, Tana, whom I'd slapped earlier, was unusually passionate. She said, "Just think. An avenger wants to kill you, a killer. You have an enemy."

And, because he has an enemy, a killer, she cries out, "Hurt me! I'm disappearing! I'm gone." And the Young Master: "Then I was gone too. We turned into fluffy clouds and flew off into the sky."

It's an endearing character, and the writer --- or his translators --- have created a wonderful work of art, an epic tale told by an idiot who grows up and grows wise and then grows old, and can say, as he is lying on his deathbed:

    Dear God! If our souls can really be reincarnated, please send me back to this place in my next life. I love this beautiful place. Deities and spirits! My soul has finally struggled out of my bleeding body and is flying upward. When the sunlight flickers, the soul will disperse. There will be nothing but white light.

--- A. B. Segawa

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