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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 204-205
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Red Poppies by Alai. Translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 448 pages, cloth $25, paper $14.
Written by one of the most exciting Chinese writers to appear in English since 1988—when Zhang Xianliang's Half of Man Is Woman made it clear that something new was happening in the Middle Kingdom—Alai's Red Poppies arrives as an unforgiving portrait of life in outer Tibet that no amount of feel-good, Free Tibet dharma liberalism will ameliorate. A fat novel in tour de force translation by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin, it instructively knocks our Western infatuation with everything Tibetan. The author, an ethnic Tibetan born in western Sichuan Province—formerly part of Greater Tibet, now a grungy intercultural drift zone in Han China—takes us back to the heyday of feudal eastern Tibet in the 1930s. Clan chieftains operate under the nominal suzerainty of distant Beijing and the equally remote Inner Tibetan religio-cultural suzerainty of Lhasa. This is not the Tibet of sympathetic Hollywood film stars. Instead, Alai impastos a profoundly impressionistic portrait in which Buddhism and Bon shamanism contend in displays of one-upmanship and in which serfdom, slavery, casual brutality, ritualized murder, mate stealing, and the worst of sexual exploitation flourish under tribal patriarchies—something between the old Scottish highlands and honor-obsessed Sicily. Nevertheless, folks in the novel generally make it through, aided mainly by their raunchy peasant capacity for joy and raising supreme hell under the guise of religious, astrological, and agricultural revels. As lousy as their social situation is, Alai makes these Tibetan hillbillies easy to love.
The narrator of Red Poppies is the second son of the local warlord Maichi. An idiot by all accounts—and of mixed blood since he has a Han mother—he lives in the warlike shadow of his elder brother, the heir to the family's power. As such, he grows up a good watcher and listener—if a little unpredictable. When an intertribal dispute introduces machine guns, opium poppies from the Chinese Nationalists are used to pay for the hardware, and events are set in motion that spell the [End Page 204] decline and fall of the Tibetan clan system. Within this overarching moral fable, a fascinating economic and social renaissance takes place under the narrator's not-so-idiotic guidance. "Because of me," he ponders, "the words idiot, fate, good fortune, and destiny had all become synonymous." Alas, Chairman Mao's invading army will have its own declarative utterance. Stir in Buddhist doctrinal quarrels, a little Christian missionary activity, a complicated love story, not one but two tongue slicings, and more than a few Shakespearean twists in plot, and you've got the makings of one heckuva read. What we've seen of Alai's work previously—in Manoa and Herbert J. Batt's Tales of Tibet anthology—has only been a warm-up to this meaty fare. Red Poppies captured the Mao Dun Prize, China's highest literary award, and Alai has announced it as the first of a projected trilogy. Bring it on, and think of it as a superb addition to films like Himalayas, Saltmen of Tibet, and The Horse Thief, all of which amplify and deepen other sources of wisdom—from H.H. the Dalai Lama and related teachers—about Tibet, that transcendental roof of the world that so bewitches Western imagination.
Trevor Carolan has taught English and Asian religion at University College of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, among other places. His books include the memoirs Giving Up Poetry: With Allen Ginsberg at Hollyhock and Return to Stillness: Twenty Years with a Tai Chi Master; a travel novel, The Pillow Book of Dr. Jazz; and a book of poetry, Celtic Highway.