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CULTURAL EVOLUTION : BAOTOWN by Wang Anyi , translated by Martha Avery (W.W. Norton: $17.95; 144 pp.)

January 14, 1990|Carolyn See | See is a frequent contributor to The Times View section

The Chinese have many proverbs, but an American one pertains here: "It's an ill wind that blows no good." In 1970, during the height of China's Cultural Revolution, Wang Anyi, a 16-year-old student, was sent to the famine-ravaged northern province of Anhui, to learn, as intellectuals were supposed to in those days, from "the workers, peasants and soldiers." Wang Anyi stayed there for eight years before she was permitted to return to her family in Shanghai. In 1984, six years after her return to the city, she revisited the place of her harsh exile. "In the autumn of that year," the blurb here tells us, "Baotown" was written.

It's just a wonderful book. And in one of the ironies that runs through all serious literature, Wang Anyi (who looks out the back of this novel as sexy, alluring, gorgeous, cosmopolitan, worldly, stunning) really did seem to learn one of the main lessons of the Cultural Revolution: that there is a reason why Chinese workers have endured, survived, through centuries and centuries. It's a quality that even a translator as fine as Martha Avery would have trouble putting into English words--a quality of stubbornness and curiosity; a love of food, and little parties, and goofy stories, and rural scandals; a pure, primitive, intensely alive interest in what's going to happen next.

Baotown is a crummy little village out in the north Chinese boondocks. It's down at the bottom of Bao Mountain and it's known--if it's known at all--for the ferocity of its floods when it becomes nothing more or less than a great big lake. Over the hill from Baotown is another place called Fengtown, and all the families in the area know each other, know about each other, or are related in some way.

(The translator takes care of a possible problem beautifully. In a story where almost everyone is named Bao and half of those carry either the middle names Ren or Yan, Avery gives some of these characters their true Chinese names, while others carry Cultural Revolution labels like Culture or Society. Still others are named Little Jade or given harsher monikers like Picked-up, Second Aunt or the eloquently descriptive Dregs.)

To tell the stories of the people in Baotown would be to give the fun away. How can any of this be "fun" when the distinctive black hair of Baotown's citizens has turned yellow from malnutrition; when getting a new bed is as astonishing as winning the American Publishers Sweepstakes, where everyone in the book is on the verge of starvation (or drowning) at any given moment of this tale? Just because it is fun, far more fun, from Wang Anyi's point of view to be alive than dead.

These stories weave together the way they would in any town. There's that beautiful smart girl called Little Jade who is supposed to be marrying the town lummox. How she gets out of this is an ongoing shaggy-dog tale. There's a sweet woman who raises a boy-child, and then, one day, the boy-child grows too big for social comfort: In a contest among affection, lust and/or family loyalty, a series of imaginative arrangements must be made.

Then there is young Bao Renwen, the perennial geek who wants to write a novel (every village has one!), to the consternation of an old revolutionary, who asks him, "Can you get any money from a book?" When Bao Renwen answers, "There's no money in it. During the Cultural Revolution they abolished royalties," the old revolutionary is stumped. "Then what do you want?" he asks. The young writer scarcely knows. He hangs a sign above his bed at home--"Diligence Produces Genius"--and he begins to write stories about his humble hometown. Bao Renwen's diligence produces far more than he dreams.

This is a marvelously interesting book, because, before this, we had to read about China's Cultural Revolution in the propagandistic language of that revolution. Here, the language and sensibility are far more sophisticated, "civilized," "educated." But the bedrock values come from the revolution, and the thousands of years behind that revolution; a crazy, impassioned love for the land (even its floods and famines) of China itself.

This is a love story; a beautiful one--a funny one.

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