The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong

05/02/10, TIME Magazine

Su Tong, a bestselling author in his native China, found recognition in the West on the back of Zhang Yimou’s film adaptation of his novella, Raise the Red Lantern. Nearly twenty years after that success story, Tong has just been awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize for 2009 for his new novel, The Boat to Redemption.

This latest offering is a messy, populous novel, bustling with chaotic life and holding up a mirror to a China hardly ever seen by the outside world. Set in the industrial backwaters of Milltown, on the bank of the Golden Sparrow River, The Boat to Redemption begins with Ku Wenxuan’s fall from grace. Initially revered because he is taken to be, by virtue of the fish-shaped birthmark on one of his buttocks, the son of the underground Party member and martyr, Deng Shaoxiang, he is swiftly dethroned when an equally arbitrary visiting investigation team deprives him of his parentage and therefore of his special status. Overnight, the family members become pariahs. The long-simmering tension between the compulsively philandering Ku and his wife, Qiao Limin, boils over and she kicks out her husband and teenage son, Dongliang, both of whom end up living in one of the barges of the Sunnyside Fleet that plies the Golden Sparrow River.

From this point on, this amphibian novel starts providing a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a unique community. Its tone, already salty with slang and colloquialisms, becomes almost Rabelaisian in its conscious cultivation of the lower registers. The Sunnyside Fleet becomes unwitting victim to East Wind No. 8 – ‘the first petroleum pipeline in the Golden Sparrow River region, a secret wartime project.’ A security group is sent to monitor the residents of the river. In the middle of this mayhem, a little girl, Huixian, whose mother has jumped to her death in the river, shows up in Ku and Dongliang’s barge. A proper little spitfire, Huixian quickly captivates the hearts of the boat-people, including the recalcitrant Dongliang’s. The novel then morphs into something else. Who really is this girl, who cleaves people and communities apart? Could she be related to Dongliang? What is the true parentage of Ku? Will Ku and Dongliang be reconciled to each other? It seems that the particular trajectories of Huixian’s and Dongliang’s lives are set on a collision course. As the story unfolds, Dongliang rises to the heights of almost heroic foolhardiness, raging against his life and taking on the faceless juggernaut of the Party in a way that can only end in defeat.

The Boat to Redemption is a wonderfully textured novel. It combines comedy of various stripes – burlesque, slapstick, bawdy – with an ultimately tragic vision of the condition of humans under communism. Theoretically, a class of have-nots should not exist under radical socialism yet Tong takes on this myth and dismantles it with a frenzied gusto. How equal are people under the gaze of the Party? In a novel that is so centrally about filiations and affiliations, about murky parentage and even more troubled relations with parents, the shadowy yet unrelenting presence of the omniscient, omnipotent Party takes on metaphorical resonances.

From its opening lines – ‘Most people live on dry land, in houses. But my father and I live on a barge. Nothing surprising about that, since we are boat people; the terra firma does not belong to us’ – to its final line, where Dongliang’s punishment returns him to a permanent watery purgatory, its poetic circularity also underscores its vision of the liminal state of a certain class of Chinese people, people who are neither one thing nor the other, in a kind of eternal exile from their own selves and potentials.