Boat to Redemption by Su Tong (Howard Goldblatt, translator)

If you’re unfamiliar with Chinese culture, Boat to Redemption can be both an intriguing and baffling book.  Set in Maoist China, Ku Wenxuan is the son of a martyr of the Revolution.  As such he’s lived a life of privilege – a comfy government job, a beautiful wife and a position of honor in the community.  Until, one day, his status is revoked.  The reason is never stated but the implication is he slept with one married woman too many.  His beautiful wife, a staunch party member who reads government propaganda over the radio, leaves him.  He loses his comfy job and is banished to a barge in the Sunnyside Fleet.  With him goes his son, nicknamed Kongpi*, who is the book’s narrator and protagonist.

* People may not know that kongpi is a Milltown slang term that dates back hundreds of years.  It sounds vulgar and easy to understand, but in fact it has a profound meaning that incorporates both kong, or ’empty’, and pi, or ‘ass’.  Placed together, the term is emptier than empty and stinkier than ass.

Boat to Redemption reads like a confession as Kongpi describes life as his father’s son.  The narrative voice is stripped clean of all artifice – brutally, awkwardly, uncomfortably honest.  He hides absolutely nothing.  Obsession, social awkwardness, embarrassing family dramas, constant erections…whole sections of this book could be struck out with a black magic marker and the letters “T.M.I.”  The boy is a screw-up.  Su Tong, in choosing Kongpi as his narrator, guarantees readers a clear understanding of the boy’s inner life.  Simultaneously, Kongpi is completely cognizant of how others see him.  In both cases it’s not an attractive picture.

There are two key events on which the plot of Boat to Redemption hangs. The first is the father’s fall from honor.  The second is the discovery of a foundling girl named Huixian by the Sunnyside Fleet.  Huixian, who eventually reaches the level of D-list celebrity in their small town, is the star of Kongpi’s erotic and chivalric fantasies.  And that’s about it for plot.  There’s not a lot of joy in Boat to Redemption, and I didn’t find much redemption either.  It’s a story about a small group of people who are frequently their own worst enemies.  Despite the excellent writing, the majority of the novel plods along with not much action or forward momentum until the last one hundred pages. Then we’re invited to take a front row seat and watch Kongpi’s life unravel.

Boat to Redemption is both a tragicomedy and an absurdist cautionary tale.  Kongpi is a passive victim of his heritage, his circumstances, his society.  His father teaches him that his sexual urges, his erections, are something to be ashamed of and controlled.  Ku is on constant alert against his son’s libido.  He means well, hoping only to keep Kongpi from repeating his mistakes.  Still it is a twisted relationship in which Kongpi remains a dutiful son – caring for and obeying his father without any significant rebellions until the end of the book, by which point he’s well into his 20’s.  It’s easy to imagine the man he’d be in today’s world: unemployed, no friends, living in his parent’s basement and spending all his time on the internet.

Is it significant that the social positions of all the novel’s main characters are impacted positively and negatively by government whim?  The Wenxuan family’s rise in status occured when the orphaned infant Ku was identified as the son of the martyr Deng Shaoxing (whose background story reads like it was manufactured by the political propaganda machine) because of a birthmark.  When that status is revoked father and son are “hung out” in the Sunnyside Fleet.  Kongpi’s mother loses her radio job and ends her career “hung out” in a government acting troupe touring mining towns.  The girl, Huixian, ascends to celebrity when she is chosen to portray a revolutionary hero on a float, and then plummets after she offends a government official.  She is “hung out” in a local barbershop where she quickly becomes a big fish in a small pond.  Even Milltown, the Sunnyside Fleet’s home port, has a boom period with the building of some vague government project and a bust when the project becomes obsolete.  Fortunes are constantly being made and unmade at the inscrutable whim of the Maoist government.  Yet, despite this, Su Tong doesn’t seem to have a political agenda.  An argument can be made that the characters are at much at fault as the system in which they live.  In the end, there are no heroes in Boat to Redemption. Neither are there villains.

Overall, this is a sad novel.  It includes plenty of episodes which I assume were meant to be comic and to lighten the mood in a slapstick, Keystone Cops kind of way.  In most cases I didn’t get the humor or, at best, found it juvenile.  But tragedy apparently needs no cultural filter.  The pathos of Konpi’s life hits home.  And as frustrating, pathetic and ridiculous as I found him, his father Ku & the girl Huixian, I never doubted their sincerity.  Their motivations, however misguided, read as authentic.   Their behaviors never felt manufactured for the purpose of plot.  Su Tong’s characters live and breathe.

Boat to Redemption won the 2009 Man Asian Literary Reward.  It’s author, Su Tong, was nominated for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize.

Publisher:  Overlook Press, New York (2011)
ISBN: 978 1 59020 672 0

5 thoughts on “Boat to Redemption by Su Tong (Howard Goldblatt, translator)

  1. That’s fascinating – I’ve just read Three Sisters which won the same award in 2010, and there are similar themes: the fall from grace because of a father’s excessive libido, and the way in which the people conspire to reinforce the caprice of government decision-making. And yes, the disconcerting frankness about matters that we, even in the free-and-easy west are usually circumspect about. In Three Sisters, it could be put down to the fact that it’s set in a down-to-earth peasant community, but in the discussion on my blog we wondered whether the one-child policy means that male authors don’t have much contact with or understanding of young women their own age – and that’s why they write such off-putting stuff?

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    1. Lisa –

      I was so happy to see your comment and read your reactions to Three Sisters. We seem to have arrived at the same place. Boat to Redemption is also set in a rural community, and the barge people of the Sunnyside Fleet are definitely “salt of the earth”, so that still could explain the similarities in the coarseness of the language and behavior of the characters (hell, don’t I sound like a Prairie School Marm???). I also felt there was an overall tone of self-loathing in the book – at least on the part of Kongpi and his father. The kindest thing said about Kongpi – and it’s said again and again – is that he is a “dutiful son” (though his parents don’t seem to share this opinion).

      It never occurred to me to make a connection between the depiction of and the emotional inaccessibility of these female characters could be an effect of China’s one child policy. It’s a brilliant insight. And your observation that the central women in Three Sisters tend to be cruel, mean and (I hope I’m not putting words in your mouth) somewhat petty is something I also saw in Boat to Redemption which I feel supports this. The main female character, Huixian, is portrayed as extremely shallow. Then at the end of the book she performs a small, sensitive act that appears completely out of character. It’s as if the behaviors / actions of these female characters are being accurately shown, but their motivations are completely inscrutable to the male characters and the author, himself! It reminds me a bit of The Virgin Suicides, though I believe Jeffrey Eugenides was very much aware of the dynamic he was setting up. I don’t see that awareness / sense of intent displayed in Boat to Redemption.

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      1. Yes, the baffling aspect is: who is it that finds the female POV inscrutable? The character, or the author? I can see that we have embarked on an interesting journey!

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  2. I think I’d have a hard time with this one if only because of the awkwardness. Awkwardness (whether in the real world, on television, or in literature) has always made me exceedingly uncomfortable and I’m not sure I’d be able to enjoy a book that employs it as a form of realism, no matter how successfully it might do so.

    On the other hand, my exposure to Chinese literature is entirely lacking. What would you say is a good alternative? (or is The Boat to Redemption worth sucking it up and dealing with the awkwardness?)

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    1. Boat to Redemption was my first foray into the wonderful world of Chinese literature, so I’m probably not the best source of recommendations. Though it may not have been my favorite book of 2011, I’m glad I read it. Based on my (albeit extremely limited) experience: Asian lit is very different from Western lit – to get a sense I recommend checking out Lisa’s review of another mainland Chinese author’s novel Three Sisters. I wrote my review of Boat to Redemption before I read hers of Three Sisters, and vice versa – yet we reached many of the same conclusions.

      I feel like I’ve just discovered a new country! It’s very exciting (you know, in a geeky, bookworm kinda’ way!).

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