To Live - Yu Hua, Michael Berry I was surprised to see that Yu Hua wrote this. My first and most lasting impression of Yu Hua is The Past and the Punishments, an excruciatingly gruesome novel with poignant political commentary. Though set against the backdrop of Nationalist and then Communist takeover of China, To Live isn't surreal nor is its narrative misty and shaded like in Punishments. Rather, the tone of To Live is a strange mix of slapstick funny mingled with sorrow. The writing style was also more casual and blunt. It was a change that surprised me, but as soon as I started to read, the prose felt as natural as a translation could be. (BTW, major props to Michael Berry for his translation. While the translation isn't perfect--what translation is?--this book could not have been an easy piece to work on.)

The book begins with a nameless traveler who collects folksongs and stories. He meets our protagonist Fugui trying to plow a field with his one ox, and after some exchanges, Fugui relates his story to the traveler.

In his heyday, Fugui was the son of a landlord, and a spoiled, gambling playboy at that. He drank and whored in taverns, and found amusement in making a fat prostitute piggy back him from one place to another. Soon enough, Fugui gets himself into a debt that he can't pay off, and he loses his family's fortune. This is the first major turning point of many in Fugui's hectic life, and many more follow. Fugui tells of the Nationalist revolution of China and his forcible conscription into the Nationalist army, the subsequent Communist takeover and his family's lives under the Communist collective societies, and the deaths and births in his family. He relates tales of happiness and sorrow, frustration and enlightenment, and we are forced to take one step after another along the twisted and tortured path that Fugui had to walk to become the man he is at the beginning of the novel.

The way Yu Hua depicts life is stunning. He fearlessly portrays life in cycles that sharply alternate between happiness and sorrow, gain and loss. The shock and disappointment of his family when Fugui gambled away their fortunes was painful to read. But when we later find out that it is because of that act that Fugui and his family were spared during the Communist takeover, it makes us wonder how strangely life can work out. Death follows life, separation follows marriage, and birth follows death.

What I appreciated most about this novel, however, was that despite its heavily political backdrop, the novel is never overtly political. Fugui's experience in the Nationalist army--a movement that many consider more brutal than the Communist takeover--wasn't pleasant, but Yu Hua does not openly proclaim the Nationalists monsters or saints, never shoves the propaganda of his own political beliefs in our face. He narrows his focus on Fugui's own experience, shows us the horrors, but lets us decide for ourselves.

Even in the Communist collective, Yu Hua relates the good and the bad on a personal level. The relief from constant hunger was what the collective first provided to its people. Of course, Mao's collectivization movement wasn't smartly done. In trying to employ innovative farming techniques based on non-science, China under Mao suffered mass starvation rather than the plenty that the government propogandized. But in the beginning, because of purges and uninhibited consumption, Communist China did initially provide food for the poor. And when you're starving, you can't help but love the hand that feeds you. That's what Fugui and his family felt. The book is about life and living, and while political events may determine some paths in our lives, Fugui shows that they doesn't necessarily dictate how to live our lives and that some paths we can carve for ourselves.

To Live is a powerful novel. Not everyone will like it, I know that for sure. Even for me, the story was a little too real and very painful to read. But that's not to say that literary masochists are the only ones who will enjoy this story (though it may help to have a bit of that ;]). It's for people who are willing to read with a very open mind, to detach oneself from the characters but still be able to understand and sympathize with their plights, because to really take these characters into your heart causes a lot of pain. I myself wasn't able to detach myself, and as a result, I felt a little more than drained after finishing the book. But it's a story that stays with you, that makes you wonder at life and living.

4.5 STARS AND HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, though with reservations.

By the way, Zhang Yi Mou directed a film version of this book. While a decent movie, I couldn't appreciate it as much as I think I would have if I didn't read the book. The tone and message of the movie was heavily politicized in its anti-Communist detailing. Some of the deaths scenes were completely revised in the film to depict the incompetence and spiritual depravity of Communism, rather than illustrate the simpler yet much more profound concept of the cycle of life and death. Zhang Yi Mou is a great artist, but I can't help but think that he stripped away the soul of the book to render the story into a politicized shell of what it was. That being said, I know plenty of people who much rather prefer the film than the book. If you're interested, read the book and watch the movie. Personally, I'm usually more of the book person than movie, so I think it goes back to taste.