Red Poppies

by Alai

Told through the eyes of the youngest son of a chieftan, it describes the feudal life in Tibet around the Second World War. The protagonist is assumed to be an idiot, the result of being conceived while his father was drunk. However, he keeps confusing everybody around him, as he will at times act with great wisdom, predict the future, or spurt words of profounded truth. This especially befiddles his father, who keeps wondering if his son is a fool acting smart, or a smart person acting like a fool, and cannot decide whether the boy is a contender as his heir.

A conflict with a neighboring lord sends the Maichi Chieftain to China to seek help. In return for the firearms, the chieftain agrees to plant poppies on his land. The poppies brings so much riches that the family is the envy of all his neighbors, and more conflicts ensure.

When I started reading the novel, I was shocked by the cruelty and brutality the Maichi family so wantonly display. Then I remember what I just read in Holy Cow and other books – how people in the West projected their idea of Utopia in Tibet, and imagined a world where everyone is friendly, gentle, spiritual and loving. The fact is Tibetans are just human. Why should it be more shocking that a group of Tibetan boys go around torturing animals, when boys do that in all other cultures? Or if a French king can kill a man to steal his wife, why can’t a Tibetan lord do the same? It also reminds me how the Chinese government maintained that they did the right thing to liberate Tibet from serfdom and slavery, and to bring civilization. I most certainly do not agree with their excuse of invasion, and, somehow after I’ve penned it, it curiously sounds like something coming from the previous U.S. administration.

Anyhow, once I stopped being unsettled by the sex and gore, the book is a totally captivating read. There may be doubts about Young Master’s intelligience, but certainly not about the author’s brilliance. The prose is at times poetic, and the slightly-off mind captures things and moments in a fresh perspective. In one scene, the young man makes love in a poppy field, and the sap oozes out of the crushed poppies, “as if they were ejaculating, just like me”. As the protagonist is so unpredictable, the book becomes a compelling pageturner.

This is solidly one of the best novels I read this year. In fact, it has won the Mao Dun Prize, China’s most prestigious literary award. The author, Alai, is an ethnic Tibetan living in Sichuan, China, and the original story was written in Chinese. I definitely would love to read more of his books, though it looks like Red Poppies is the only one translated into English so far.

Published in: on September 15, 2010 at 2:12 am  Leave a Comment  

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