It’s a love story during a dark and sad era. It’s a biography of a well-educated Chinese man who was born in a wealthy and privileged family but experienced one of the most turbulent times of Chinese history and ends up with nothing but feeling loved. The background history is stated as a matter of fact. Criminal Lu didn’t show any preference or criticism to any eras, any governments or any leaders. He’s close to those who treat him well in prison; he tries to stay away from those who bring trouble when he works as a professor; he receives helps from “bad” people; he was persecuted by “good” people. He just deals with specific situations and people in his everyday life. You sense the overwhelming politics and history hovering in the background. Lu looks so insignificant and helpless.
However, the history is not the point of this novel. The love story is. The love story between the couple over more than half a century is deep and touching. It’s made more delicate, fragile and beautiful against the harsh, rough and powerful background. This is the case for many war time love stories. The waves of the world around are too powerful. Individual’s life and love seem to be worth very little. The novel adapted film Coming Home (2014) focuses on the love story side of the novel. The actor and actress are as good as you can get in China for the characters.
But I’m more interested in history. When I had lessons in school, history was taught from a bird’s-eye perspective. It showed me the outline of a land over 5000 years. A skeleton. No flesh. History textbooks can’t include a lot of details. I’m sure if I want to, I could spend my whole life studying Chinese history. But Criminal Lu is a story of an individual. It makes the history suddenly very real to me. A term, a name, a definition on a thin page of the history textbook when I was 16 suddenly gain a lot of meaning. “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It applies to nations too.
The novel is told along two time lines, one before prison, one in and after prison. The bleak environment of the north west grassland of China contrasts with the sunny library of a US university. Meeting a group of happy friends in a restaurant contrasts with digging trenches to fill them with starved and diseased bodies. An ambitious young man giving speeches passionately contrasts with a lowly criminal mumbling with a stammer. A grand house of three floors filled with heavy wood furniture and crystal vases contrasts with a flat of just a few square metres. Later on when he’s actually coming home, the hatred and avoidance from his family contrast with the care and friendship from his prison guards. All happed to an old shaky man. I can’t believe he actually never complains.
It’s a very finely crafted novel, it sometimes makes you laugh, sometimes gives you a heavy heart. Who says you can’t learn from fiction?
“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”
*The book title is my translation.
Here are some beautiful film posters. All from the internet.