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