Colors of the

Da Chen
(Random House)
a Chen was born in Southern China in 1962. Before the coming of the Communists his family were landlords. But then Mao brought in his unforgiving cadre, and Da Chen's family was scorned, given little food, forced to perform the most humilitating and backbreaking jobs in the commune.

His grandfather, once a famous calligrapher, was beaten and kicked by the Red Guards, and the lack of appropriate diet and medical care --- deliberately withheld --- finally killed him. Da Chen's father was forced to work in the fields for long hours, and there was scarcely enough food to bring home to the family. For the three lean months of the winter, half-rotted yams were their only food.

Given this sad history, and the bleakness of the lives of those who were considered enemies of the Maoist state, one would expect Da Chen's story to be a tragedy, on the order of Hunger, The Grapes of Wrath, or Black Boy. But this is a tale of defiance, and The Colors of the Mountains ends up as a triumphal novel. Further, with it's comic style, it quickly turns to a picaresque bildungsroman, closer to Mark Twain than John Steinbeck. This, for example, is the description of Da riding a bike with his friends, going over to the nearby village of Putien to see their first movie:

    Sen's bike was a museum piece. It rattled in places where it shouldn't have and was mute where it should have made noise. It was, nonetheless, mounted with a long backseat. There were five of us; we rode that bike the acrobatic way. One pedaled, two straddled the backseat, and one sat sideways on the handlebars, barely giving the pedaler room to see. The fifth passenger ran behind and helped push the heavy load uphill. Every two miles we changed seating arrangements, so that both runner and pedaler would get a rest. It was pathetic to see the old bike groaning under all that weight, slogging through the rough, muddy road with almost flat tires.

This is not a translation --- it was written in English --- and so, obviously, Chen knows how to put his words together. Later, we find out that for the first fifteen years of his life, he spoke nothing but the dialect of his village. But he had something --- that something that drives the one-in-a-million people to succeed against all odds --- something that made him kick, as they say in the Bible, against the pricks. His description of his humiliations in the classroom, the teachers pointedly turning away from him, the brutal teasing by his classmates, are enough to bring tears. But his father, a scholar (and self-taught acupuncturist) gave him hope, and his mother (with her prayers to the various gods) gave him the faith to survive.

So we have here a tragi-comic novel, with emphasis on the comic, making us come to regard our hero as another Dink Stover, Huck Finn, or Holden Caufield. This is the description of him and his rowdy friends, and their first drink:

    "It isn't strong, see." Sen poured the whole thing down his throat. His face suddeenly twisted into a fierce grimace. Then he turned red down to his neck. He opened his mouth as wide as he possibly could, waggled his tongue, fanning his mouth, wildly gasping for air. After a long pause, when the liquor apparently had settled, Sen said, "See, I did it." His voice was raspy, like sandpaper.

§     §     §

Da Chen had that extra oomph that made him seek out a teacher for the bamboo flute and, later, the violin --- the latter being an almost unheard of instrument in his far-off village of Yellow Stone. He recognized early on that it was his studies that would get him out of the backbreaking world of peasant life, so he found a Ms. Wei, who spoke English --- and studied with her long enough to prepare for the national scholastic exams that followed hard on the heels of the Cultural Revolution. Along the way, as we are rooting for him (to do his studies, to excel in the exam, to beat those who mock him and his barefoot ways), we are showed life as it must be in the exotic world of a Chinese village.

Da Chen and his family go through the upheavals of the last few years of Mao's regime --- one in which gossip and slander are endemic; where the village turns cruelly against the underdogs; where drinking and smoking and mocking seem to be the only vices permitted. At times, it puts us in mind of Salinger --- all the characters, forever and a day, lighting, smoking, or putting out a cigarette. There is even a smoking contest, which his friend's grandfather won:

    Grandpa just went on and on with his pipe like a busy chimney. His eyes were smiling, and I kept pouring him hard liquor to quench his thirst. In the end, he won first prize, a whole year's supply of matches for him to burn.

Da Chen's story is one with heart, reminding us, in its gentle excesses, of early Henry Miller. This is a dialogue between Da and his slightly supercilious Cousin Tan, who has just been admitted to college at AU --- Amoy University --- where they serve meat at every meal:

    "Even for breakfast?" I asked.

    He nodded. "Pickled meat."

    What a luxury. I had never heard of such a thing, but I believed him.

    "But I stay away from pickled meat for breakfast for health reasons." He shook his head every so slightly. It was a shake we should feel rather than see. The movement was at least fifteen degrees gentler than that of a typical Yellow Stone farmer.

    My mouth watered and I had to swallow a few times at the delicious thought of meat steaming on a plate. My lofty goals about going to college vanished, and my desires became very basic. My whole body yearned for meat. Simmered, roasted, sautéed, boiled, fried, smoked, or pickled. What difference did it make? The bloody flesh tasted good whatever you did to it.

    "We spent a whole long month on MT," he said casually.

    The whole family shrugged. MT? What was that? Meat Truck?

    "Military Training, that is, for all AU students," Cousin Tan Explained."

New Chinese literature is all the rage now. The recent novel Waiting, which describes life in a far north Chinese hospital during the Cultural Revolution --- and which is as about as crisp and interesting as last month's fortune cookie --- was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and even overpraised by the august ALA Booklist. Let us hope the prize-givers look around a bit and discover Da Chen. He is good and deserves more than he has gotten so far. They tell us he lives in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Some of us are tempted to hop over there and visit for a while, to listen to his flute-playing of an evening, and hope that his writing talent will rub off on us, his devoted and loving fans.

--- L. W. Milam

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