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Red Poppies Hardcover – February 12, 2002
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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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
Kham was rarely controlled by any government in Lhasa but, instead, governed by about twenty local bosses each with a feudal territory and pretty much absolute authority. The main issues of the day were attempts by the ruling Geluk sect of Buddhists in Tibet proper to spread their religion in Kham, where the Nyingma sect prevailed, and the impact of opium poppy farming in the area. A really good description of these and other factors in a very readable novel.
Narrated by a chieftain's son, who is considered an "idiot", we meet some wildly individualistic characters, including slaves, serfs and warlords. We are there for the multiple seductions, romances, triumphs, revenges, murders, cruelties and executions. There's also a bit about the opium poppies that are planted as a cash crop which is profitable but creates a famine because there is no wheat being planted. And there's also a beautiful woman whose actions are truly ugly. It's all there in this very readable epic that moves as fast as the speed of light.
I loved the book and didn't want it to end. And think it would probably be a great film.
It is weak on plot, following instead a timeline with developments as appropriate. Making the voice, the main character, an "idiot" seems to be a device to avoid the logic of literary development. Things happen and sometimes the idiot deals brilliantly and some advancement is made in the fortunes of his ruling class family. If things go badly, well he is an idiot.
The references to the Red and White Hans towards the end are obvious. But one would have liked to learn more about the Tibetans in Tibet as opposed to those in the story. Did they live under similar conditions? Did they face similar choices between cash crops and food and trade?
Withal, this is a book that represents a people who were truly alive.
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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