Remember the photograph of one man standing in front of a column of tanks during the political uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989? The picture is not unlike Eddie Adams' famous 1968 photo of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a man in the head or any of a great number of photos that win Pulitzer Prizes because they can reduce massive political struggles to a single moment and an all-too-human scale.
Novels don't do the same thing. They poke around for answers, often find nothing and are often most successful when they linger, when they give birth to a sense of doubt. Novels are not immediate. But like Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, they can embellish big historical events with little human emotions. A good novel might try to explain just what that man in Tiananmen Square was thinking.
"Sons of Heaven" is a first novel about three Chinese men. One of them, Xiao-Di, stood in front of that tank, while his brother Lu is a common soldier, an enemy of such a dissident. The third is Deng Xiaoping, who ordered the tank into the square. Terrence Cheng's three men are more than simple characters (each with his own chapter) in a novel. They signify the major political forces at play in modern China.
Cheng sets himself up for a high-wire act. Can "Sons of Heaven" break out of the genre of the political novel? Can Xiao-Di, Lu and Deng breathe and live as men, with such a huge burden of representation on them? It's an arduous battle, set mostly in Beijing, though with excursions into China's countryside, to the Great Wall and even to Ithaca, N.Y. Cheng uses a large field to give his novel historical scope.
Xiao-Di is raised with his older brother by his grandparents. He is destined to live a peasant's life in Beijing. But then he meets Xiao-An, an unattractive young woman from a prosperous Party family. Her family arranges to send him to Cornell University, where he is somewhat politicized (more, sexualized) by a young woman named Elsie. She calls people who are not white "colored" and, upon graduation, immediately goes to work in the movie industry.
Crushed by the loss of Elsie, Xiao-Di returns to Beijing with a math degree and refuses to marry Xiao-An. Her family attempts to destroy him; even his poor grandparents are furious with him. He falls in with a friend called Wong, an embittered university student who involves him with the protests at Tiananmen. The travels and education that make up his fractured life feel like a recipe for protest. If anyone might find himself standing in front of a column of tanks, it's him.
Xiao-Di's older brother Lu stands in stark contrast. Lu has always been a soldier. He hasn't risen in the ranks because of his horrible temper, and he believes in fighting. He hurt his leg as a child, and his face has been disfigured. Unattractive, unthinking and prone to violence, he is meant to embody all that is wrong with China's old guard.
Comrade Deng's chapters are woven into the narrative less frequently. Deng ruminates about Mao and history. He dreams in great, significant detail. But it's difficult to take the dream events too seriously (in one, Deng cries in front of Mao, while in another he kneels in a cave with Xiao-Di).
Really, do men such as Deng sit back in their screening rooms, nap and dream of dissidents? Luckily these dreams are short, and other chapters employ far more action than farfetched political exegesis. There's also plenty of violence. Lu not only believes that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. He uses the butt, too.
The writing here is terse and often beautiful. It improves as the violence increases, so when a house burns unjustly: "He listened now to the crackle and blaze as the small house crumbled and cut itself in half."
There is not so much detail attached to the street life of Beijing. There's little here about Tiananmen Square save for the banners ("Newspapers Should Speak the Truth") and the white plaster statue of the Goddess of Democracy that the students erect across the square from the portrait of Mao.
Cheng's concise style works better with people. He wonderfully describes the brothers' blinded, furious grandfather, drunk and raving in a miserable house in a hutong, a Beijing neighborhood slum with a stinking communal bathroom. And in the sparse details of the skirmishes around the square, the terror of being a dissident in Beijing comes through.
There's a not-unwelcome action-movie feel to "Sons of Heaven." The two brothers are such opposites, and waiting for their meeting is like waiting for the clash between two mortal enemies in a war movie. Meanwhile, Deng paces his living quarters, thinking about his place in history. And this, too, is cinematic. But there's an epic sweep here as well, and the dissident's cries feel real.
Finally, the novel stays within the confines of its genre. But what's wrong with that? There's no reason that these characters should transcend politics when politics is crushing them. The novel closes in on itself in a way that's similar to the real-world conclusion to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square.
And given today's political clashes and their hopeless outcomes, the political novel genre may deserve to be revived. If we accept that sometimes politics is all we are, than this clash between polemic-heavy brothers glows with truth.