Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel

Format: Trade Paperback, 208 pages
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978-1-59051-326-2 (1-59051-326-6)

Pub Date: June 30, 2009
Price: $18.95

In recent years, there has been no shortage of expat-written nonfiction books set in Beijing, but fiction in the same category is hard to come by. That is why Jonathan Tel's new story collection, The Beijing of Possibilities, caught my eye the moment I saw it on the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2010 short list (thanks, Leela Soma and Rob) .

It's a slim little volume with a most intriguing cover art of a pretty Chinese lady with what appears to be sightless eyes. When friends and I first saw the cover design we had a nice discussion of what that might signify...was she looking "inside" herself or was she deliberately refusing to "see" that which is obvious to everyone else? Don't you just love cover art that intrigues? I did some research on the art and found out it has been taken from the Reed Darmon collection. Reed Darmon is the person responsible for the "Made in China" graphics book and you can learn more about it here.

To come back to the stories...all twelve invoke Beijing in some way or the other even if the stories themselves vary widely in time period and location.
The most notable aspect of Tel's storytelling is how he recounts modern facts about China but interwoven with Chinese folk tales (and superstitions). The Monkey Legend seems to be his favorite one and the first story of the collection "Year of the Gorilla" begins with the sentence, "It's been a while since the Monkey King set out on his Journey to the West", with "A Journey to the West" being the title of this much-loved legend and folk tale.

Another trait I noticed is his ability to blend old China with the new and no story illustrates that better than "
The Most Beautiful Woman In China.” which links together two thousand years of Chinese history, while being set in Beijing today! One generic character that makes his or her appearance in many of the stories is the 'Chinese migrant' and after reading a lot of topical articles on China I have come to the realization that Beijing, even more than Shanghai, is a mecca for the Chinese is the land of opportunity, the land where dreams come true or as Tel himself describes in the title, it is the land full of possibilities.

"Beijing is the center of the universe. Ask anybody who lives there. “The true Beijinger secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
—in a foreword by Helan Xiao

One of my favorite migrant characters in this collection is from the title story. Miss Xu is a fisherman's daughter but "foster" mother to the child of a young couple in Beijing. The couple have hired Miss Xu to look after their as-yet-unborn child because they are too busy to care for the child ten or twelve years time they'll be ready to take the child to live with them. Unfortunately the child dies before they could hand it over to Miss Xu but because she had been registered in Bejing as a "foster mother" Miss Xu lands herself an unexpected ticket to residency in Beijing which is to most Chinese what an American green card is to refugees!
Ofcourse, being a "hick" from Hainan (a sleepy little fishing village) she was treated as an outcast in Beijing which makes for a very moving story.

Tel also has this ability to infuse his stories with playful plots and language. Amusing, but a little sad too, is "The Book of Auspicious and Inauspicious Dreams" where a young, modern couple, during renovations to their 1960's home, chance upon a rusty tin of souvenirs buried in a wall of their suburban Beijing house. Realizing it must belong to the previous owner they do everything to try to return the tin, only to be met with exclamations of protests from the previous owner who insisted she had never laid eyes on the tin before and that she "loved Chairman Mao more than her own mother and father" which reminds the reader of a turbulent time in China's history
where to be a lover of the arts or to have "western" things meant having a "bourgeois" background which in turn meant being sent to the villages for "reeducation"...something that was a tough and humiliating experience for most intellectuals.

I found a couple of the stories had the overall effect of looking at a subtly distorted mirror but for the most part Tel's prose and plots are smart, entertaining, observant and insightful. It's most definitely a collection to cherish.

Oh, and before I go...I haven't been able to explain the girl on the cover. My best guess is that she is "Little Yu" from the heart warmingly sad story, "The Three Lives of Little Yu" about a childless couple who adopt a little girl whom they call "Yu" only to have her snatched away by the god of death. They adopt a second girl and call her "Yu" too, but the same fate awaits her. When the third girl, again called "Yu" enters their family it is implied that she is a reincarnation of the previous little girls. So could the girl on the cover have been Yu between her lives on earth? I guess I am getting carried away. I'll bet you not even Jonathan Tel thought about his cover as much as I have! :) Oh and whatever you do, don't miss the last story....there's a nice twist in the tale there, a brilliant narrative coup!

Two insightful reviews that might interest you are:

L. Dean Murphy at The Book Reporter

and Happy Reader at Book Closet

And finally, some entertainment! A clip from the pop opera, "Monkey: Journey to the West"


Happy Reader said...

Great review, Lotus! You have captured the essence of the story very well. The book reminded me of our trip to Beijing many years ago. What a beautiful place! We climbed the great wall and visited the 'Forbidden City' years ago and I loved Beijing more than Shanghai! Shanghai was more polluted, cosmopolitan and the constant hustle and bustle of the city was too much take in for a foreigner. On the other hand, I found Beijing more relaxing and welcoming. Like you mentioned, Beijing is indeed a land of dreams and you could just somehow feel it in the air. It has a magical quality to it! Btw, Thanks much for the link :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Chitts and thank you! I hadn't realized you have visited Beijing....lucky you! One day I would love to make a visit to China but having hailed from India (we are no strangers to the hustle and bustle of city life, not to mention a sensory overload from the smells, sounds etc.) I tend to pick low key vacation spots ....time to break out of this comfort zone I seem to find myself in. :)

Coming back to the book...most books written about China or the Chinese people have numerous mentions of food...didn't notice too many food references in these stories and I found that unusual. But then, this is an unusual book, I'm glad I read it.

Radha Sriram said...

Hey Lotus,

I love your book reviews:) I am eagerly expecting one for "Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Veghese....



Angela in Europe said...

Sounds like a cool book. I like fiction about the East. It is so enlightening to see fiction through Eastern eyes.

Priya Iyer said...

hey!! came across your blog while randomly surfing the net, and adored it!! i am from bangalore, india, and a passionate book lover.. am touched by your love for books and india!! :)

i am adding your blog to my blogroll and hope to follow it regularly now onwards.. :)

Leela Soma said...

As always a brilliant review, Angie that makes us want to read the book. I like the way you have given a synopsis of some of the stories. Beijing rather than Shangai holds Green card for the Chinese is really interesting. I loved the cover art and your guess that it may have resonance with 'YU' in the adoption story is fascinating. Thanks for such great reviews and allowing us to dip into collections from world literature.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Radha!

You know, I think the Universe is trying to tell me something! This past month, I've had no less than 10 people mentioning "Cutting for Stone" to me :) Have you read it? I might get it on audio, it's quite a long read, innit?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Angela!

Actually Jonathan Tel is a British writer...but his last name, could I suppose pass for Vietnamese or something close? You know Ang, you might want to read Bill Bryson's "In A SunBurned Country" in preparation for your trip Down Under. I read it a long while ago but it's packed to the brim with info on Australia! And you know how witty he is, makes for a truly enjoyable read!

Lotus Reads said...

Aww Priya, thank you! And when I have a moment (probably after the March Break) I am definitely going to visit you at your virtual home. Can't wait to see the books you love reading.

Lotus Reads said...

Leela, thanks so much for your kind comment. I'm getting back to blogging after a sporadic hiatus so it's nice to come here and see these appreciative comments, it's very encouraging. BTW, I may never have come to hear of "The Beijing of Possibilities" if it weren't for you!

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Anil P said...

Excellent review. I'm yet to read a book set in China, unless Seth's Heaven's Lake can be considered a China book.

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Sanjay said...

Fascinating and not just the book but your review as well. You truly have a way of bringing out the essence of a book, that keeps me coming back for more.
How did you see the stories in context with the changes in India, if you do not mind me asking? After all the modern and the old do exist, clash and mix in India so well too don't they?
And in the e-book era, what will happen to cover art? Nice article from the NYT about this. link