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Old Town Paperback – January 25, 2011
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Intrusion: A Novel
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A Q&A with Author Lin Zhe
Beijing-based author Lin Zhe has written 14 novels and three TV series. Time Out Beijing caught up with Lin Zhe and published the following interview.
Although Old Town is mostly set in the old town of Fuzhou, the action partly takes place in the States. What literary influences
helped create it?
The contents of Old Town is very Chinese, but the style – a less constrained style – is very Western. I like the French writer Marguerite Duras: she also uses freedom with time and space. When I write I feel that I am breaking away from the real world and stepping into a place which is much more free.
In the novel the older characters of the family live by simple values of Christian faith and Chinese tradition; by contrast your narrator represents a chaotic and lost generation who focus only on themselves. How important is faith in the novel?
The different generations in the book are strung together by faith, and today’s China has a great hunger and thirst for faith. Faith answers questions everyone needs to face: why we are living in this world, the meaning of life, where I am from and where shall I go. Many people feel depressed because they have no answers to these problems. I’m not saying that one faith is right. I just want to let people know that we need to take care of our spiritual life, especially in a time of great materialism – like today.
You’re currently producing a Chinese TV series based on Old Town. What are the differences between writing a novel and writing a script?
Scripts have many technical requirements: for me, it’s more of a job, more of a routine. But with novels there are almost no limitations. I simply follow my feelings and let them lead me.
Interview by Cecilia Wu and Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore for Time Out Beijing.
About the Author
George A. Fowler lived and traveled widely in the Asia Pacific region for over 30 years, first as a Marine, then as a student of Chinese and Malay, and finally for 23 years as a commercial banker. He has most recently translated Marah Rusli's classic Indonesian Malay novel Sitti Nurbaya, which will soon be published by Lontar in Jakarta.
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Top Customer Reviews
At first, adjusting to some of the conventions of Chinese nomenclature might take some getting used to. Most of the characters are referred to by their relationship titles rather than proper names: for example, Ninth Brother and Second Sister are the maternal grandparents of the narrator. Once the reader gets the hang of this, it feels quite natural and probably helps maintain the Chinese "feel" of the novel. Translator George Fowler made a good call there.
Although OLD TOWN deals with one family's story, it's really an epic about an entire era. We see the struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, culminating in the victory of the Communist Party, followed by the catastrophes of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," ending in a modern China where status is more closely tied to money than ideological purity.
One aspect of the book that is likely to attract little notice in China but may surprise Western readers is its presentation of China as a heterogeneous country, with divisions of old and young, rich and poor, right and left, North and South, city and country. It's not a portrayal that usually comes through in Western novels or films. Throughout the book, almost incidentally, Zhe lets the reader see just how large and varied the country is.
Outside of educating the reader about Chinese history, geography, and literature (a helpful timeline, map, and family tree, as well as footnotes for literary and cultural references, help the reader keep up with a great deal), OLD TOWN is a wonderful story about faith, family, change, and continuity. It's a novel that truly immerses the reader, in the best sense of the word.
Do look at the map and notice that Old Town is located in Fukien province. You also must be aware that China is a land of many dialects which are, in fact different languages in some cases, more different than Italian and Spanish.
This is a book about family and characters. Also it sheds light on the endurance of Chinese culture even though it would seem that Chairman Mao tried to have it destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
I am specifically interested in China and its history. But this book is larger than that of specific area. For example, it makes me wish I had spent more time talking to my grandparents, now dead, of the people in their families and written them down. I wouldn't even have to be literary about it. There are stories I was lucky enough to have heard, but have forgotten many of the details and I feel sadness at that in addition to the stories I know, there are those I never even heard. Besides containing stories of human events, Chinese culture, individual characters and humanity in general, the book made me nostalgic about my family's history and geneology.
The book follows the granddaughter of Ninth Brother and Second Sister as she travels back to Old Town relating her failures in love and career and then flashes back to the post Qing dynasty era, the civil war, and then communist rule. The difficulties (hunger, uncertainty, fighting) are only compounded by the usual cast of characters who would find a home in any daytime soap opera (alcoholics, thieves, violent tempers, unrequited love, and the list goes on). What is unusual about the Ninth Brother and Second Sister is their Christian faith, certainly a rarity in China. What is a bit annoying is that the frequent use of prayers detracts from the the themes of of faith and redemption rather than underscoring.Read more ›
The author is a well-known author and journalist in China and this book is her retelling of that history, as seen through the lives of one family in "Old Town" a small town in Southeastern China.
The story is told through a woman's eyes, in the first person. She's a divorced businesswoman and the story deftly marries her experiences today with the main plot -- the tale of her grandparents. They are never given names, but are called Ninth Brother and Second Sister throughout. While this seems odd, the translator points out that this is common in Chinese.
We follow Ninth Brother from his childhood and Second Sister from her teens, both from before their marriage. They live and die in Old Town, facing war (Ninth Brother becomes a doctor in the Chinese Army), revolution (their children become Communists), and many other difficulties.
It's a lovely and compelling way to tell their stories and China's history.
What I found most intriguing about the book is that Ninth Brother and Second Sister are Christians and while the author (and narrator) are not their faith and motivations are clearly and sympathetically drawn. I suspect that it's unusual to find this level of understanding in a book written by a non-Christian in an Eastern culture and it contribute greatly to the fullness of the characters and our sympathy with them.
The book is long, not surprising considering how much time it covers, but never drags. I found myself often wanting to continue reading.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A retrospective of primarily rural life from the women's perspective from the Japanese attack and occupation (WWII) through the present. Read morePublished 2 months ago by L. William Katz
Wonderful story and I really enjoyed learning about aspects of recent Chinese history and the tenacity of Christians who lived during such difficult times. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Susan Huelsman
I liked this book a lot. It's a well-written family saga that takes the reader through many important chapters of Chinese history, and has a rich, respectful way of conveying... Read morePublished 14 months ago by Always Learning
For me, this was more a peek into another culture and a time in history about which I had only passing knowledge. Read morePublished 14 months ago by LAlex2015
Old Town by Lin Zhe
Overall I found the novel interesting because I knew very little about the period in China during the Communist takeover. Read more
Very good understanding of what life was really like a long time ago. Also with ideas of present day life.Published 14 months ago by villefranche