Yang Jisheng's Tombstone, the Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, is not the kind of book I could rate based on nothing more than how much I did or did not like it. The subject matter is much too deep for that and the dangers the author endured to write this phenomenal work far too real.
Jisheng's account as presented to us in the English-language edition of Tombstone is a single-volume 629-page condensed version of the original Chinese-language 1,200-page 2-volume set first published in Hong Kong a decade ago. There's no need to question what may or may not have been lost in translation because Jisheng provided so much fact-based data with which to work in the original publication.
Moreover, Tombstone is much more than just a triumph of historical writing. It represents in many ways the triumph of a movement to shed light on "the worst famine in human history." As an integral part of that movement: "Yang got people who experienced the famine to describe it in their own words. He found local journalists who'd witnessed and reported on murders and starvation and got them to write their memoirs. He located and interviewed local implementers of the fatal policies. He got surviving resisters to recount their experiences" (pp. X-XI).
Magnitude of the Horror
It took a while for me to adjust my brain to magnitude of the fact that the horror described actually occurred less than 70 years ago. In that hellish avoidable atrocity an estimated 30 to 45 million people died within a four-year period basically because of authoritarian arrogance and a total disregard for the freedom of individuals. Yet my shocked incredulity as a reader is nothing compared to the painful awakening Jisheng experienced as a member of the Communist Youth League proudly committed to promoting the policies of Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" initiative only to discover those very policies in 1959 caused his father's death.
Ironically, it was while working in the late 1960s as an official journalist that he learned "how 'news' was manufactured, and how news organs served as the mouthpiece of political power." (Very different dynamics from what U.S. President Donald Trump's so often proclaims as "fake news.") However, it was not until the late 1970s that the awful deadly scope of the great famine became apparent:
"Now we knew that it was a man-made disaster that had caused tens of millions of people to starve to death... In my effort to shake off deception, I came to understand the social background of my father's death and to reflect more profoundly on his life..." (pp. 11-12).
That "deception" has remained hard for a lot of Chinese to shake off in part because of many official's refusal to acknowledge the famine for what it was and insist on referring to it in such euphemistic terms as "the three years of natural disaster," or "the years of difficulties." Another seems to be to avoid the appearance of discrediting the legacy of People's Republic of China founder Zedong.
Tombstone is not easy reading by any means. Where Jisheng narrates the actions leading up to the abuses of power, and fear of the same, which led up to the famine, he is straightforward and factually dense. That is a quality hardcore historians relish but average readers might find less entertaining. And in a way that is the point.
Jisheng's objective as a journalist is to share awareness of an event which it would seem impossible for the entire world not to know about already, but which it appears relatively few actually do. As a human being and the son of foster-parents who gave all they had to raise him and support his education goals, he is determined to honor those parents and the dozens of millions who lost their lives to the famine. Therefore, the title selected for the book: "A tombstone is a memory made concrete." (p. 3)
The result his investigative labors is indispensible documentation of officials' motives for allowing the tragedy to occur; and, how many hypocritically gorged themselves on the good life while entire villages literally starved to death. Yet such documentation is balanced with reports difficult to read for a very different reason. In short, Jisheng does not censor the stories of people describing acts of cannibalism which they either witnessed or committed themselves.
We learn about: people in villages who wait for strangers to come along so they can kill and eat them, an adolescent sister who kills and eats her younger brother after their parents have died, people who wait a few hours after funerals so they can dig up corpses and consume them. These and other actions seem too extreme to believe they really occurred in a civilized nation. But we are aware now that they did. Some people even describe which parts of the human body they found most delectable.
If you're a fan of the movie Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russell, Lili Simmons, and Patrick Wilson, and you did not flinch watching the scene where "Troglodytes" split a man in half to eat him, then the above accounts of cannibalism might not bother you too much. Anyone who did flinch, throw up, scream, or faint, can empathize to some meaningful degree with those who survived the horror of the Great Famine and with Jisheng's determination to tell their collective story.
The Record of This Particular Memory
The importance of the history provided in Tombstone is evident enough in its own right, or at least it should be. "Human memory," the author tells us, "is the ladder on which a country and a people advance. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; the bright spots, but also the darkness" (p. 3).
The record of this particular memory is a significant indicator of the dangers that can befall populations which opt for authoritarian rule by a single individual, or small group of individuals, versus government by a robust engaged citizenry exercising some form of democracy. Even more than pitting one political ideology against another, it is about accepting some share of communal responsibility that automatically comes with living in any society hoping to make great strides forward, or just to maintain for its citizens peace, security, and decently-stocked refrigerators.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
What was at the center of Sartre’s sometimes mercurial passions and obsessions? Perhaps it was less a rejection of personalities and movements that it was a devotion to something which likely was not always apparent: the facilitation of an organic dialogue on how best to steer humanity toward acknowledgement of the ways it engineered unspeakable tragedies and why it is imperative we accept collective responsibility for correcting them.
To read part 1 of this article please click here.
In this, he was much more a world citizen, or internationalist, than a nationalist. Cohen-Solal demonstrates as much through accounts of his physical and psychic immersion into different cultural and political environments as a traveler, and through applied adjustments of his literary focus as an engaged philosopher. Referring to the aftermath of a 1945 trip to the United States:
“What Is Literature?, Anti-Semite and Jew, The Respectful Prostitute, these are some of Sartre’s works that in the months to come, deal with the reality he has discovered in America. His recent awareness of the black problem [Jim Crow racism] is enhanced by his friendship with the American writer Richard Wright, whose autobiographical novel, Black Boy, was published in March 1945” (Cohen-Solal, p. 242).
And, as philosopher and social justice advocate Cornel West points out in his introduction to the biography, despite any criticisms of the man:
“Sartre will always be remembered as the most visible and influential European intellectual who put a limelight on the struggles against U.S. and French imperialism in Africa and Asia and against white supremacy in the United Sates. This is no small matter and it took great courage to do so. His support of freedom struggles in Morocco, Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa, and the United States—regardless of the outcomes that resulted—was heroic” (West, p. xviii).
The book publishing industry being what it is in 2017, marketplace titles are often the result of sensational headlines or celebrity personalities rather than the value represented by the quality of a manuscript’s substance. As such, in addition to Cohen-Solal and Cornel West, readers of the American trade paperback centennial edition of Sartre: A Life can thank The New Press for its proven dedication to principles and practices that support the publication of books based on their intrinsic merit. Doing so is not about worshipping someone like-Paul Sartre––whose closest contemporary counterpart may be the African-American Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison—as a cultural icon. It is about maintaining access to the kind of literature on which humanity depends to help preserve whatever hard-won rights and freedoms still exist.
Among the most beguiling of Sartre’s diagnostic tools of philosophical inquiry was how he chose to employ the biographies of others, such as Jean Genet’s and Gustave Flaubert’s, as mirrors. Rather than emulating their approaches to literary form, metaphysical paradoxes, or political conundrums, he used them to “think against himself,” as if his intellect were a knife, or sword, and theirs whetstones upon which he sharpened concepts and strategies. It is possible Cohen-Solal, though she indicates otherwise, has done the same in regard to Sartre with her masterful examination of one of the 20th century’s most engaged, courageous, and influential creative thinkers.
Aberjhani is an American poet, historian, essayist, editor, journalist, social critic, and cautious artist. His many honors include the Choice Academic Title of the Year Award, the Notable Book of the Year Award, Outstanding Journalist Award, and Poet of the Year Award. He is currently completing final edits on a work of creative nonfiction about the cultural arts, race relations, immigration, and human trafficking in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle continues to win acclaim for a number of reasons: one is the author’s insightful blend of world cultures to create a single tapestry of world-class literature. Another is his seemingly
seamless fusion of classic genres such as Gothic, erotica, and horror to create something new beneath the literary sun. And a third is his invention of two of
the most compelling characters in modern literature.
The role played by the defining power of character throughout The Gargoyle becomes evident in its first horrific opening pages as our nameless anti-hero drinks and drives his way to a life-altering crash. The detailed account of the inferno that engulfs and permanently disfigures him is as lucidly terrifying as it is mesmerizingly precise. It’s not the kind of thing that most people survive but this man does, albeit with severe anatomical damage and loss: “I could hear the bubbling of my skin as the flames kissed it.” In fact, as a man and former porn star, he suffers the loss
of the one appendage with which he had earned his living.
During the course of his hospital recovery, the narrator battles thoughts of suicide, a growing addiction to morphine, and the excruciating pain of cultivating the growth of brand new skin. Enter Marianne Engel––“She appeared in the burn ward door dressed in a light green hospital gown, with those unsolvable eyes and that riotously entangled hair”––a former psychiatric patient and artist famed for sculpting gargoyles. She is convinced that she and the once-upon-a-time porn star have shared at least one major previous lifetime together when she was a German nun and he was a mercenary soldier. Even more odd, however, is Engel’s claim to have never died at all while waiting some seven centuries to reconnect with her once-beloved. She is comfortable enough with this belief that she strips naked in her new/old friend’s hospital room to reveal a body covered with a luxury of tattoos: a
beaded rosary and cross, a snake coiling up her leg to her sex, a Sacred Heart
on her left breast, a pair of angel wings upon her back, and more.
Whereas we might expect the irony to be painful, it is instead profoundly daring. Engel stands before her friend painted with beautiful symbols while the man once accustomed to being paid for his beauty is now something more akin to her gargoyle sculptures. To a degree, it would seem that his extreme disfigurements make him into the “Gargoyle” of the book’s title. But herein may lie a central aspect of author Davidson’s literary art. Is his anti-hero a gargoyle now because of how he looks, or was he in fact more of a gargoyle because of the cynicism and self-absorption that dominated his personality before his life-transforming accident? And does the ensuing journey to emotional and spiritual recovery make actually make him more beautiful than he ever was in the past?
Marianne seems at first to be a hyper eccentric teller of tales whose stories simultaneously puzzle, captivate, and motivate her friend. It turns out, however,
that these stories––in such diverse settings as France, Japan,Germany, and
Iceland––have a much greater function than simply passing the time while recuperating. Davidson’s skill at evoking the passions and dilemmas of characters in different cultures and historical eras is truly admirable. Likewise, his Dickensian talent for the creation of a cast of supporting characters who, against the odds, lend credible depth, substance, and color to the narrator’s and Marianne’s fantastic story.
Maniacal or not (or more precisely, “schizophrenic or not,”as our narrator suspects) Marianne becomes much like the angel indicated by the tattooed wings on her back as she moves our narrator into her home. There, she alternately nurses him, tells one amazing story after another, and works herself into frenzied bloody exhaustion to complete a final series of gargoyle sculptures, with the very last being of you-know-who. As one grows weaker and the other grows stronger, their original roles reverse and readers find themselves rethinking the plausibility of Marianne’s extraordinary claims.
Interwoven masterfully throughout The Gargoyle are deeply embedded allusions to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno that not only tell the history of the book itself, but that in some ways re-write the masterpiece and present it in modern form as The Gargoyle. To fully understand such a notion, one has to read and actually
experience Davidson’s triumphant first novel. A number of readers have suggested
that taking on The Inferno (for those of us who did not get to it in high school or college) either after or before reading The Gargoyle, doubly enhances the pleasure of delving into this exceptional work of new millennium fiction.
Anyone first introduced to the impassioned prose of Carlos Ruiz Zafón through his international bestseller, The Shadow of the Wind, will find it difficult to avoid comparing it to any follow-up to the novel. Where Zafón’s The Angel’s Game is concerned, that is both a good thing and a not-so-good thing. It is also inevitable because page by page and chapter by chapter, we come to realize there’s a reason the novel is set in the same city, Barcelona, as The Shadow of the Wind, but an entire two decades ahead of it. That reason does not become completely clear until you are able to compare some very specific details on page one of The Shadow of the Wind with corresponding details toward the end of The Angel’s Game (the results of which readers can discover for themselves). If all this sounds slyly amorphous and irresistibly intriguing, that’s because Zafón specializes in literary puzzles and mazes, and The Angel’s Game is an exceptional one.
It’s easy to see the many ways that The Angel’s Game extends the author’s masterful use of the labyrinth as a symbolic metaphor but at the same time the novel is a very different one that abandons the kind of tightly constructed plot line applied in the previous book. Whereas the beginning of The Shadow of the Wind introduces readers to what is clearly an historical mystery in the classic mode that teases and beguiles with every new development, The Angel’s Game starts out more like a literary memoir: “A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story.” Such an observation will invite many writers to nod in agreement, and prompt readers to sigh with romantic notions about what it means to be a writer. It hardly seems like a strong enough foundation upon which to build a serious novel of nearly 500 pages. However, it soon enough becomes clear that The Angel’s Game is indeed a kind of mystery that dissects the life and career of one David Martin, steering readers through the turbulence of his youth, the precariousness of his creative genius, and the uncertain motives of the people who populate his life.
A survivor of childhood trauma and abandonment, David grows up as the ward of a newspaper called The Voice of Industry; and, as the chosen protégé of a philanthropist named Pedro Vidal. He receives his “first crack at glory” when the newspaper is on its way to press and the editor discovers he’s short of an entire page of copy, providing David the opportunity to produce his first published story on the spot and launch his literary career in dramatic fashion. The launch successfully establishes David as the writer of a newspaper fiction series called The Mysteries of Barcelona, then later as the author of a series of “penny dreadfuls” (once known in the U.S. as “dimestore novels”) called City of the Damned. For the latter, he is required to write under the name “Ignatius B. Samson,” which he considers “a small price to pay for being able to make a living from the profession I had always dreamed of practicing.”
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Of all the shifting benevolent and sinister characters in The Angel’s Game, none are more baffling than the mysterious Andreas Corelli, “a gentleman with black, shining eyes that seemed too big for his face,” and who inspires both hope and fear. Ostensibly, Corelli appears to be an eccentric publisher and philanthropist out to entice David to write a masterpiece of religious fiction called Lux Aeterna. But he is clearly much more than that. David’s first communication with him comes in the form of an invitation to accept “a little surprise” that turns out to be a sexual encounter with a ghost rather than an actual meeting with Corelli. Eventually the two do meet and enter into an agreement that changes, or possibly confirms, the course of David’s life.
The big question, however, is exactly who and what is Andreas Corelli? Is he the angel of the novel’s title who has come to liberate David from the soul-numbing agony of writing books he doesn’t believe in for the sake of earning money to stay alive? Or is he something closer to a demon intent on corrupting David’s talent for some malevolent purpose? Could it even be that he is neither of these but a manifestation of David’s own madness creating the kind of exalted literary intrigue and drama that he has not been allowed to publish as a would-be serious author? From David’s love for Christina to his obsession with the mystery surrounding the reported death of prominent Barcelona lawyer Don Diego Marlasca, all roads seem to twist and turn and lead back to Corelli.
The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind. It is, like its predecessor, a major homage to books and at the same time a mesmerizing metaphysical mystery. Just how deeply passionate Zafón is about books and what they have contributed to civilization over the centuries may be summed up in this passage from the eulogy for the owner of the Sempere and Sons bookshop: “Seňor Sempere believed that God lives, to a smaller or greater extent, in books, and this is why he devoted his life to sharing them, to protecting them and making sure their pages, like our memories and our desires, are never lost. He believed, and he made me believe it too, that as long as there is one person left in the world who is capable of reading them and experiencing them, a small piece of God, or of life, will remain.”