The River Below

Francois Cheng, Author Welcome Rain Publishers $24.95 (400p) ISBN 978-1-56649-100-6
Lyrical, image-driven and provocative, Cheng's novel is composed in the form of an artist's memoir, recording not just what is seen but the consciousness of seeing, like Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Tianyi, the artist and narrator, is ending his days in an institution. His mind partially destroyed by physical torture and emotional suffering, he relates his tale of three friendsDan artist, a poet and an actressDwho grow up in China together in the '30s and '40s, decades of monumental political and social upheaval. In 1948, Tianyi gets a chance to study in Paris. He remains there during Mao's takeover of China, until 1957, when he receives a letter from his childhood friend and first love, Yumei (""the Lover""), which prompts him to return to China. Tianyi's Westernized attitudes soon get him shipped off to a labor camp in the far north. Heavily symbolic (Tianyi confronts ""the Visitor,"" the specter of his own death and the death of art), the novel can be read on several levels. It unrolls like an allegorical scroll, its characters at once individuals and symbolic figures, as in the I Ching, in which the individual reflects the universal. On yet another level, the book testifies to the horrors of 20th-century Chinese history. This highly literate novel stuns with its intense imagery and philosophical depth. Cheng, a writer, poet, translator and professor, puts a human face on the Chinese artists and intellectuals who suffered and died under Mao's regime. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 10/23/2000
Release date: 03/01/2001
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-1-56649-243-0
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