I remember reading Lu Wenfu’s The Gourmet more than ten years ago (before going to China) and finding it very incisive and funny. It spoke so well of food that my stomach immediately started to long for some long noodles in clear broth… It was a novella rather than a full-length novel and I really recommend it to all who have an interest in food or Chinese history or both.
That one, apparently not translated into English yet, is much more ambitious in length and scope and I must say right now that I couldn’t read every page to the end. It was like a Chinese classics, with a huge number of characters, all related by complex family links and love or business interests, and spanning over a very long time (from the 1940s, before the Communists came to power to the late 1960s at the start of the Cultural Revolution).
At the opening of the novel, Xu Dawei, a wealthy, liberal young man decides to share some rooms of his family house with 7 friends (Chinese traditional mansions for rich families have many buildings and courtyards, so that different branches and relatives can live together yet separated). Among these students attracted by a bohemian lifestyle: a musician, a painter, a young man interested in foreign-style parties and dances etc. The narrator is the youngest of these friends and, as I understand, is based on Lu Wenfu himself.
The tone at the beginning of the story is that of traditional Chinese comedy, where rich and poor people are described with their petty weaknesses and quirks (notably all their schemes to get and keep a room in the house), so that the picture is very vivid and the pace brisk (I’m thinking of the sweet and sour theatre drama Tea House by Lao She). Soon afterwards these young men, all intellectuals, fall in love and the tone becomes more elegiac. What happens to them all is actually the common fate of intellectuals in the second part of 20C in China: being accused of communism by nationalist government, then being denounced as reactionary by the Communist power, they fall from disgrace to disgrace and can’t escape their fate. I must say that I lacked the courage to follow their ordeal in details (humiliations, denunciations then forced exile into the countryside), but it’s not the author’s fault, just that I wasn’t in the right mood for this book.
I wonder if this book will ever be translated in English, because it seems more of a book for Chinese readers, because they’re more apt to decipher all the hidden historical and literary references (the house with the garden is obviously based on the classics Dream of the Red Mansion etc.) and more used to this multi-level plot. But as a non-Chinese reader, you can’t help but share the feeling of bitterness and sorrow over this lost generation of intellectuals. When I was in China, I often wondered who and where these people were. After such a harsh life, they’ve learnt to live below the radar and young people dismiss them as fuddy-duddy, useless remnants of another time.