You were born in a bustling city, and one day are made to uproot yourself, and your whole family, to begin again in the poverty-stricken countryside. Any amenities you might have become used to, like toilet paper, your new neighbors have never seen or heard of before.
This is the fate of the Tao family of Nanjing during the Cultural Revolution in Han Dong’s Banished. Long-listed for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, Banished tells the tale of the fictional family’s exile to Sanyu in northern Jiangsu in painstaking detail. Though a fictional family, the Taos are representative of the true struggles experienced by families in the 1960s and ’70s.
For those unfamiliar with the social and political climate of that time, Banished is truly educational. The day-to-day descriptions of what the Taos must deal with are shocking, and the details of what tools and materials they use on the farm show the author’s impressive knowledge of the living conditions. But as with any learning process, at times the descriptions are tedious, and come at the expense of character development. The squeamish may find Han Dong’s extensive attention to detail on matters of excrement and fecal disposal to be especially wearying. In line with the in-depth descriptions given on everything else in the book, these scenes can be particularly unpleasant.
Slang terms from the Sanyu dialect bring to life the little community in which the Taos must try to “strike root,” a turn of phrase used throughout the book that refers to father Tao’s desire for his family to forget about their former lives in the city, a difficult task for a former nationally acclaimed author who fell out of favor with the powers-that-be in cadre school. After his books and other intellectual paraphernalia are confiscated, father Tao volunteers to re-settle his family in Sanyu, rather than continue to live in the city in disgrace.
Banished is presented from the points of view of a range of characters, and because of the constant change in perspective, after the first couple of chapters the novel doesn’t need to be read in chronological order. At times entire scenes are recounted by a new character, a narrative vehicle that at best allows the reader new insight into the situation and at worst is repetitive.
One of the most interesting chapters comes near the end of the book, when father Tao himself is introduced. We wonder if his story would have been more gripping had it been told earlier in the book.
Han Dong will be speaking at the Bookworm Literary Festival this year, and says he is looking forward to the reactions by English readers to his novel, which he expects to be consistent with the reactions of his Chinese readers. For him, the story is the most important, and should be accessible to all readers, no matter the country or culture they hail from. “I try to avoid the need of special cultural or historical background to understand the story, and the humor of situations,” he says.
Han says he seeks to explore human nature in his writing, and Banished certainly achieves this goal.
Han Dong, Banished, University of Hawai’i Press, find it at The Bookworm for ¥270
What: BILF: From Banished to Screwed
Where: The Bookworm
When: Mar 17, 12pm