Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Half of Man is Woman (1988) by Zhang Xianliang



Book Review
Half of Man is Woman (1988)
by Zhang Xianliang

Replaces: The Heather Blazing by Colm Toibin

 You would think the editors of the 1001 Books project would have put this groundbreaking Chinese novel in the original edition, but it didn't make it in till the first revision, replacing the forgettable The Heather Blazing by Colm Toibin- a book I literally can not remember.  I would suspect it's about Irish people.   I believe what is unusual about Half of Man is Woman is part the frank sexual content- which I guess was quite unusual in China at the time- and the fact that it is a book about life in a Chinese prison camp that was approved by the Chinese government.   China's reckoning with the "excesses" of the Cultural Revolution has been a mixed bag:  Some regrets, some denial, but hey it wasn't entirely bad, which is also the tone of Half of Man is Woman.

 Looking back, it can be hard to even remember the pre-Tiananmen Square vibe in China (Tiananmen Square happened in 1989), but at the time many Western observers thought that China was on the path to something more than a single party dictatorship.  Half of Man is Woman reflects that thawing, in the same way that Perestroika opened up the path for the official acknowledgement of Stalin era prison camps in literature.

  Like the narrator, author Zhang Xianliang had the (mis)fortune to be sent off to a Chinese prison camp BEFORE the cultural revolution- in 1957, as a "rightist" during a period where many upper class, middle class and intellectual families were being wholesale removed from society.  The upside is that he was already in prison when the Cultural Revolution reached it's insane peak, and the narrator of Half of Man is Woman is actually thankful that he has a safe place to exist during the frenzy.

  His life at a Chinese labor camp borders on the ideal, the major issue being a lack of sexual potency.  Most of Half of Man is Woman concerns the relationship he has with a woman who has been incarcerated for immorality, and after his virility is restored in the aftermath of some flood-avoiding heroics, he finds that sexual potency opens up new problems.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The White Castle (1990) by Orhan Pamuk


Book Review
The White Castle (1990)
 by Orhan Pamuk

   There are a SURPRISING number of Orhan Pamuk novels available as in the Audiobook format.   I jumped at the opportunity to listen to The White Castle because I saw it was a period piece- set during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire.  Ismail Kadare- the Albanian author- also writes about the Ottoman empire- and I'm generally interested in the subject- reading about the Ottomans is one of those sweet spots in literature where you can learn history at the same time.

   Most of the action in The White Castle in the 17th century, where an Italian scholar is captured by the Ottomans and enslaved.   He proves his worth serving as an unofficial doctor, and eventually draws the attention of Hoja, a kind of freelance scholar who is close to the Sultan.  Eventually, Pamuk develops a classic unreliable narrator, as the relationship between the Italian scholar and Hoja- who he closely resembles- blurs, eventually sparking a secret exchange of identities near the end of the book- I'm sure that might be considered a spoiler but seriously- it's Orhan Pamuk.

   Clocking in at under 8 hours- it's hard to consider The White Castle a waste of time-  but it's not particularly satisfying in a way similar to much contemporary European literature- who am i, what am i doing here- it's a stereotype of European existentialism, and in that sense Pamuk is as European an author as any French or German writer.

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