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Red Poppies: A Novel of Tibet Paperback – May 6, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

The sweeping epic novel Red Poppies, by Tibetan author Alai, is set in eastern Tibet in the middle of the last century. It chronicles the waning days of the once-powerful Tibetan chieftains and the rise of the Communist Chinese state. The tale is narrated by the son of one of the most powerful chieftains, a son considered an idiot by his family. But this supposed idiot consolidates his family's power and wealth with peasant good sense and cunning. And cunning is what is required to survive in this brutal world, where tribal revenge is exacted by ordering decapitations and the cutting off of tongues and ears. There's plenty of lusty sex in this picaresque novel, as well as bloody battles, devastating earthquakes, and the political maneuvering of Tibetan monks. The writing, translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin, is beautiful. In one strange and wonderful scene, mice are drawn to an opium processing shed by the intoxicating aroma; they gather on the rafters, swoon into the vats, and then are cooked and eaten as delicacies.

Red Poppies became a bestseller when it was originally published in China in 1998 and went on to win China's highest literary award in 2000. It's the first book of a projected trilogy from the author, so readers have much to look forward to. --Susan Biskeborn --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Tribal intrigue among neighboring chieftains in early 20th-century, pre-occupation Tibet drives this witty first novel (and first book in a projected trilogy) by an ethnic Tibetan writing in Chinese, exuberantly translated by Goldblatt and Lin. The first-person narrative follows the comic vicissitudes and nutty coming-of-age of the Maiqi clan's Second Young Master, known far and wide as an idiot. Second Young Master, whose warlike older brother is being groomed to take over the family's vast landholdings in what is now Sichuan province, falls in and out of favor with his parents, who are never quite sure if his simple pronouncements mean he's a true idiot or a sage. Young Master attains manhood by sleeping with his mother's maid, makes friends with the son of the family's indentured executioner and learns much from such visitors as the Han special emissary, who promises to enrich the Maiqi chieftain if he will plant opium poppies. Poppies are planted, swelling the family's coffers, but also attracting the jealousy of nearby chieftains. Young Master finally proves himself by maneuvering cannily with chieftains on the borders of the family estate, returning with "untold riches" and a beautiful wife; later in life, he is enmeshed in the battles between White and Red Chinese. Basing his portrayal of Young Master on a legendary Tibetan wise man, Agu Dunba, Alai creates a character endowed with enormous heart and humor. His story makes for a murky history lesson, but it succeeds marvelously as a wacky and immensely enjoyable portrait of a thoroughly unusual figure. (Mar. 6)Forecast: Though politically sensitive, this novel was published in China in 1998, where it was a critically acclaimed bestseller. Its sweep and humor make it one of the best of the wave of contemporary Chinese novels translated in recent years, though its idiosyncrasies may throw some readers.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (May 6, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618340696
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618340699
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,054,587 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover
If you think of Tibet as a place of mystery and mysticism, an ethereal and other-worldly place which rejects the physical world in favor of the spiritual, you are in for some huge surprises when you read this book. Set during the early to mid-20th century, this novel by a Tibetan author feels medieval, revealing a feudal society of tribal chieftains and their internecine rivalries, complete with intrigue, murder, vengeance, double-crosses, and a callous disregard of life and limb.

In short, simple sentences, easy vocabulary, and straightforward style befitting the subject matter, Alai tells the history of the Maichi family, depicting a family of rulers who believe only in power--"You can ride [your slaves] like horses or beat them like dogs, but you must never treat them like humans." Hands are cut off, tongues are cut out, enemies are beheaded, hungry people are used as pawns and allowed to starve, children are beaten for playing. Though the Living Buddha and several lamas play roles in the novel, they are not a dominant, or even a moderating, force, appearing to be more like soothsayers than real religious leaders. One lama even remarks, "Instead of teaching us to love, why must religion teach us to hate?"

Almost cartoon-like with its shallow, black-and-white characters, its good guys vs. bad guys action scenes, and its high quotient of blood and guts, the novel is stunning in its total disregard for the value of life. When, at the end, the revolutionary Red Chinese emerge victorious in the nearby Chinese provinces and begin to exert power over the Tibetan chieftains, the reader is stunned by the irony--we know the Red Chinese historical record, but here they seem more idealistic and far more concerned with the lives of the common man than the chieftains do. I found this a disturbing book, one which offers few references to a "soft," cultural side of Tibet, such as its music, art, religion, and literature. Mary Whipple
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I thought this is a wonderful book. The translated prose is exquisite, the characters, especially the protagonist/narrator, are intriguing and the story is a exciting epic adventure. One can't ask for more. I particularly enjoy the slightly detached tone of the narrator's voice, as if it is a inner wisdom speaking through the "idiot" boy.
A previous reviewer hints that the author may have a pro-Chinese government agenda. I feel this is very unfair to the author. Granted, the Tibet he presents to us is sometimes at odds with the way the region has been eulogized in the West. But that's no reason to immediately question the authenticity of the author's voice. I didn't detect any pro-"Red Chinese" passages in the book.
I am sorry to go on a long tangent, but it would be a real shame if people get the wrong impression that this book is written with a unscrupulous political agenda. It's a beautiful work of art about humanity and should be enjoyed as such.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Tom Shi on March 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
So I saw the book cover in local Borders and was intrigued enough to began flip through it. Next thing I know I've already spent three hours in the store, reading through it at a furious pace.
The book is about the rise and fall of a Tibetan noble family during the first half of 20th century, seen through the eye of a "idiot" (or not) Second Young Master of the family. Think of I, Claudius transported to the harsh dry Tibetan plains. The author achieve passages of astonishing lyricism, and moments of great wit, particularly when he describe the protagonist's not-so-idiotic way of trying to come to terms with a fast changing world.
All in all, I was very impressed with this book.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jodi Goldsmith on December 8, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a beautifully written and expertly translated novel. It certainly ranks creatively with "The Life of Pi," as well as meeting the high standards set by such surreal writers as Marquez and Allende. Not that this novel is as surreal as the South Americans' novels, but it portrays a reality so much closer to medieval times than to the 20th or 21st centuries that it seems surreal and even rather upside down. Initially, I was unsettled by the Chieftain State it portrays so vividly--executions, mutilations, and willful behavior extraordinaire by the Chieftain Families. But through shifts in power and the maturation of the characters, there is so much humour and wisdom and delight in this book that much that is universal is revealed in this way of life that we see rapidly moving towards extinction.
I think China has intervened in matters Tibetan--be they religious or/and political, for a very long time preceeding China's invasion of Tibet. This potential of the Chinese for intervention with Tibet is represented in this novel--but I in no way felt that "Red Poppies" is pro-Chinese or in any way denigrates the Tibetans. I have a passion for Tibetan religion, culture, and art [actually I'm most interested in the Tibetan Bon Shamanic tradition]--and have an absolute horror of China's persecution of the Tibetan people, so I expect I would have been sensitive to any subtext in the novel if it exists in this regard.
Finally, this is the kind of book that helps one step outside of the familiar and gain a fresh perspective--rather like going on vacation and then coming home and having everything look just a little bit different for a time. So take a break and enjoy this magical work.
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