Sunday, May 3, 2009

Red Azalea - Anchee Min

A while ago I read Becoming Madame Mao by Min, which was a semi-fictional accounting of the life of Madame Mao. This is the nonfictional accounting of the life of Anchee Min during roughly the same time period. She grew up during the cultural revolution in China and her recounting of the time is really moving.

Min tells of her sort of typical childhood in Shanghai through a painfully personal lens. Unlike some biographies that are dryly factual trying not to over-value their own experiences or others that seem written to make the writer the victim, to justify their actions, Min tells her story with emotions bared, not qualifying or trying to make sense of the events. Perhaps the strange circumstances of time and place make it feel like a period piece. For me as a reader, it can only be a deeply personal account because I have no alternative telling against which to compare it.

Min's life is in fact atypical for a young woman of the cultural revolution. She spends years working on a communist 'model farm' as do thousands of youths, but is later brought back to the city to act in a film version of a new opera by Madame Mao. Instead of fame and status she's rebuffed and falls into a low position but befriends a man with a high position under Madame Mao and learns the true nature of Communist China's government.

Min begins as an enthusiastic communist, full of energy to dedicate to fulfilling all the propaganda promise of the new China, but as she rises she is pushed back by the ambition and pettiness of those around her. Her patriotic zest is further destroyed by love and friendship for which she forsakes her communist ideals and becomes a more complete person longing for acceptance and loyalty. 

The love story between Min and her friend Yan is particularly powerful, not just taboo as a relationship between two women, but creating a personal loyalty unacceptable on the farm. Later Min must suffer the relationship between Yan and a new boyfriend which nearly destroys Min and (I think) colors all of her self-destructive actions thereafter. 

The book is well-written and paints a really fascinating picture of a time and place that is difficult to know. Min is a natural protagonist and you feel for her throughout her struggle, even when you disagree with her actions. It is difficult to imagine being as friendless and alone as she is and still soldiering on. I highly recommend this book, I found it better than Becoming Madame Mao (particularly the style, which I found distracting in Becoming). 

And, yes. I love some books about China. It's my thing.

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