Monday, January 01, 2007

Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min

(Book Review)

Yet another historical novel, this one about much more recent events.

Madame Mao is one of those historical figures whom everybody recognizes, but very few people know much about. Before beginning this book, I expected it to be a kind of “Citizen Kane” type story; a dedicated communist revolutionary works her way up from nothing and then becomes corrupted by power. (A story which seems to be true for any revolutionary unfortunate enough to experience success as far back as Robespierre “the incorruptible”.)

Instead, however, this is the story of a woman driven desperately by her need for love and acceptance. She becomes a communist primarily because of a boyfriend, and in Yenan she is much more interested in love than in revolution. And when she comes into power, the same need for love and acceptance cause her to participate in some of the worst political atrocities of the 20th century.

What emerges then is a story almost Shakespearean in nature. Madame Mao is not changed by power, but the same characteristics which made her so sympathetic in the first half of the book make her such a demon in the last half of the book.

Anchee Min is able to achieve a great balance in this book. Madame Mao is one of the monsters of history, and this book is certainly not a white wash. And yet even until the end the reader retains some sympathy for Madame Mao. This is done partly through an interesting narrative style. There are two narrators in this book. One is the 1st person narration which tells the story from Madame Mao’s perspective. The other is a more objective 3rd person narration which inserts the facts left out by the first narration.

About one-third of this book takes place before Madame Mao meets her future husband or gets involved in the Chinese communist party, back when she was just a struggling actress in Shanghai. In many ways this is the best part of the book. Once the story gets to the political parts, often not enough background information is given. And this is the most frequent complaint about this book by those who are not familiar with recent Chinese history.

For those who lack the historical background, another great book is “Wild Swans” by Jung Chang. I had to read this book twice at Calvin because it was assigned by two different Calvin professors for two different classes. Actually I only skimmed it the second time, but it is still a great read. If you haven’t read “Wild Swans”, read that one first.

But “Becoming Madame Mao” is worth reading as well. “Wild Swans” may help give the broader picture, but “Becoming Madame Mao” shows the behind the scenes intrigues of the Communist party. Reading this story, with all the abuse of power, over-indulgence, paranoia and back stabbing, one can’t help but think of the ancient Roman Emperors. In fact in a lot of ways it reminded me of “I, Claudius” with Mao playing the paranoid Augustus Caesar, Madame Mao playing the scheming Empress Livia and Deng Xiao-Ping as Tiberius, who eventually becomes the successor against all odds and after years of being out of official favor. (The parallel doesn’t work if you press it too hard because Madame Mao and Deng Xiao-Ping were on different sides, but the same flavor comes through in both novels).

In this new Imperial court, there are plenty of fascinating stories. Like the story of the composer Yu, who, imprisoned for political crimes, is suddenly freed by Madame Mao because she likes his music. The shaken man, still in his prison clothes, is embraced by Madame Mao and rushed onto stage to receive applause before he knows what is happening.
Or the ignoble end of Madame Mao herself. After her fall from power, she spends her last days in jail forced to make dolls for export. She amuses herself by stitching her name onto the dolls which are exported all over the world, until the guards find out and she is stopped.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Critic Richie Unterberger writes that "Long, Long, Long" is one of the most underrated songs in The Beatles' large discography." [1] It is a relatively quiet, calm song, especially when compared to the raucous "Helter Skelter" which immediately precedes it on The Beatles.

Link of the Day
Independent Press offers Alternative Views of President Gerald R. Ford

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