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Chinese Lessons HEAVY WINGS by Zhang Jie translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Grove Weidenfeld: $19.95; 308 pp.)

December 10, 1989|RICHARD EDER

Last spring, when the English translation of Zhang Jie's 1985 novel, "Heavy Wings," was being prepared, its publishers may have wondered whether the dizzying pace of transformation in China would seriously date it.

It deals, after all, with a confused eddy rather than a stream of change; and streams of change were what we Westerners were reading about. Instead of demonstrations and protest and talk of free elections, it pictures an uncertain struggle among bureaucrats, factory managers and political cadres to determine whether a seemingly modest kind of economic reform will prevail over ossified party control.

The writing, though frequently graceful, is hardly what one thinks of as advanced. Its tone is pungent, and it has an occasional moment of poetic inwardness. Still, if not Socialist Realist in the orthodox sense, it is largely in a vein of what might be called Socialist Realist Dissent.

Boy does not meet tractor. Boy--woman, rather, since there are touches of an awkward but lively feminism--meets fishpond. Dissent means a fishpond built at an automobile factory to supplement the employees' meager diet. It means worker incentives and worker participation, versus the dead centralist hand. When two weary reformer friends have a social moment together, they talk about inefficiency and leaking generators.

Tiananmen Square and its aftermath change the dated to the timely, and perhaps to the prophetic. What has happened in China since the summer is as if a brutal blow had been dealt during a transforming family dispute. And as if the hand that dealt the blow had simultaneously drawn curtains over the window that gave us a fascinating if disjointed view of it.

We know that the quarrel, set back, eventually will resume. And "Heavy Wings" provides a detailed view of how such a quarrel has been conducted in China through decades of radical starts and reverses. We get a sense of a small boat under continually shifting winds; the crew lowering sails and cautiously raising them again, beating back and tacking ahead, under frequent threat of capsizing and with crewmen--both sail-raisers and sail-lowerers--alternately and impartially washed overboard.

Perhaps, Zhang Jie suggests, the ultimate movement will be forward. Her heroes are all reformers and all of them have been scarred by past defeats. They are all terribly tired. Bone-weariness--the reactionaries take it easy--is one of the central and convincing fictional elements of the book. We feel it, a heavy rip-tide, and the heroes' struggle against it humanizes them.

There are flashes of beauty here and there; admittedly, amid a good deal of sentimental and cardboard writing. One of the reformers, Jiabin, is walking with a colleague who is desperately drained and depressed. He notices that a leaf has blown down on her shoulder: "A merciful green leaf. Touching as a poem. Instead of brushing it off, Jiabin lets it lie there. People need to be comforted."

"Heavy wings" has a theme but no principal plot. It is a panorama of small plots, vignettes and sketches. They center upon the Ministry of Heavy Industry, where the struggle between reformers and reactionaries is inconclusively played out; and in the Morning Light Auto Works, the reformers' pet project.

On the reform side are two vice ministers: 65-year old Zheng, saintly, cautious but a battler almost in spite of himself; and his younger ally, the sardonic and faintly Machiavellian Wang. In the factory, their cause is embodied by Chen, the new director, and by his spirited and imaginative foreman-disciple, Yang.

Yang, tirelessly involved both in his work team's innovative work methods and in their personal problems, is not a party member. His parents were followers of Chiang Kai-Shek. That he can be a hero is part of the author's message of reform against old ways of thought, politics and action.

Ranged against the reformers is not so much a series of individuals as a whole status quo--a party rule made so cautious and lethargic by the purges and resurrections of the previous 40 years that it has become immobile.

If there is a personification of this immobility, it is the Heavy Industry Minister, Tian. The portrait of this arch-bureaucrat is the best thing in the book. Ostensibly, he holds power over his reformer subordinates; yet it is a power he doesn't really master. He has experienced too many shifting winds to be able to be decisive; nobody can predict when or from where the next shift will come. In this uncertainty, Tian lives by a series of infinitesimal feints, advances and retreats.

He was, after all, associated with the Gang of Four--Mao's wife and her power-hungry associates, now in disgrace. Tian is terrified when he remembers that he had had a stainless steel toilet installed for her when she made a visit. "Whether or not she used it, his intentions were clear," the author writes with a marvelous satiric flourish. "(It) could be his ruination."

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