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
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.
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