Reading this brief novel is like gazing at an Ottoman miniature - all the more striking in its beauty for its precision and diminutive size. The narrator is a seventeen-year-old boy banished with a childhood friend to the mountainous hinterlands of China during the Cultural Revolution. Their crime: being children of doctors and a dentist or, in Maoist parlance, class enemies. In the course of their "re-education," performing manual labor under the watchful eye of the village headman, they do not learn what the Cultural Revolution would have them absorb. Instead of learning obedience, assimilation, and political homogeneity, they discover the beauty of literature. And, as they do, they cannot help but share it, sparking passion and changes in those around them.
Dai Sijie, who was himself "re-educated" during the Cultural Revolution, writes with a restrained lyrical style that suits the atmosphere, a collision of rural beauty and international sophistication. The story moves along nicely, propelled in equal parts by tension over the two friends' misadventures, humor at their antics, and anxiety over budding love interests. In sum, a most enjoyable read. (And a somewhat lighter take than the previous work I read on the Cultural Revolution, Nien Chang's fabulous Life and Death in Shanghai.)
As I was searching for a cover photo for this I learned, courtesy of Ye Wise Google that this book was made into a movie. Did anyone see it? Is it any good?