Review: Victoria Uren on Ge Fei‘s “Peach Blossom Paradise”

Gei Fe, author of Peach Blossom Paradise

Peach Blossom Paradise is, ostensibly, a historical novel. It begins in 1898 and ends some forty years later, in a China that has been transformed by the fall of imperial sovereignty and the creation of a Republic (with the Communist revolution yet to come). It is occupied with lives rearranged by that change, from secret-society members who openly criticize the existing order to villagers whose days have been tightly structured by the dissolving feudal system. Its four sections are dense with romance and intrigue: there are affairs, first loves, power struggles, vanishings. Still, the novel lacks some of the conventional trappings of the genre. Its voice is slippery and jagged. It musters neither outrage nor sympathy. And its examinations of its subjects—namely, progress, revolution, and the possibility of assembling an account of the past—lead to no obvious conclusions, no tidy morals.

Ge Fei, the author of this strange, transfixing book, was born in 1964 and now works as a literature professor at Tsinghua University. He first rose to prominence in the 1980s as a member of China’s literary avant-garde, one of a handful of writers, Yu Hua and Su Tong among them, who emulated Beckett and Kafka and Borges—writers whose works were newly available in China—in a literary milieu long tied to realism. He made his name on elliptical, recursive, surreal little stories and novellas. Peach Blossom Paradise, which appeared in 2004 after a ten-year hiatus from fiction, seems, with its fidelity to history and its almost pulpish plottiness, to be in many ways a departure from this early style and the set of interests that accompanied it. Yet the book’s uneven character and gently destabilizing elements, such as footnotes sprinkled throughout it by a fictional present-day commentator, show an experimentalist’s sensitivity to a reality that can feel unstuck, a time somehow discontinuous.

In the novel’s early pages, a girl named Lu Xiumi gets her period for the first time and, alarmed, contemplates the prospect of own death in ways that recall sentimental songs, though she immediately recoils from “all the traditional endings.” Lu Xiumi is a curious, if cloistered, girl. She lives in the village of Puji, a town lush with trees and flowers a short distance from the Yangtze River, the boundary dividing China’s north from its warm, luridly flowered south. (The trilogy Jiangnan Sanbu, which Peach Blossom Paradise inaugurates, is named for that part of the country.) Her father was until recently a respected official in the county capital, a job that allowed him to amass a modest portion of land. The Lus get their rice, among other things, from their tenant farmers. In their compound, they keep a porter, Baoshen, and two concubines, known by their nicknames, Magpie and Lilypad.

The drama begins when Xiumi’s father disappears, an event that has an air of inevitability. For many years, Master Lu’s mental state had been in decline. He did odd things: frightening the concubines, showing up to dinner naked, prattling on about lofty ways to make Puji a more humane place to live (one of his ideas was to install covered walkways between all the houses, so the villagers would not get soaked in the rain). Soon, a mysterious man moves into his office on the invitation of Xiumi’s mother. His origins are unknown, and none of the household staff seems to have heard of him. Xiumi’s mother informs Xiumi that the man, whose name is Zhang Jiyuan, is a “fine writer and a man of the world,” who has been to Japan and lived in Nanjing and Beijing. Xiumi finds Zhang repulsive, in part because of his arrogance and his slovenliness—at one point, he scrapes the undersides of his fingernails with a toothpick that he then places in his mouth—but also for some other reason she can’t quite place. In a lighter moment, she and Lilypad jokingly call him a ghost. But at the dinner table she looks at him and concludes that his demeanor has “a cold, deep-seated gloominess at its heart, as if he were a being from another world.”

These speculations, it turns out, are not only the product of an overactive teenage imagination. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Republican revolutionaries sought refuge in Japan. (The Tongmenghui, the secret society that was the forerunner of the Kuomintang that would topple imperial Chinese rule, was founded in Tokyo in 1905.) This clue to Zhang Jiyuan’s identity is soon borne out in a footnote establishing that an associate of his was murdered by imperial forces and that he is himself part of a secret cell, the Cicadas and Crickets Society, working to overthrow the state. Xiumi doesn’t know this, but her intuitions are not entirely off the mark, either. She senses in Zhang Jiyuan’s strange aura forces that will shape her life, and the lives of hundreds of millions in the world to come.

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As the Lus set out looking for her father—a search that terminates without much fanfare—a sense of unreality begins to permeate her days. She feels that “strange and inexplicable events were occurring all around her, and yet the mystery refused to speak to her.” One day, while running an errand in a nearby town, she bumps into Zhang Jiyuan; this seems less like an accident than evidence of a conspiracy, a secret, hidden logic underpinning the visible realm. On the way home, she looks across the land and realizes, for the first time, that away from her family’s house there is “an entirely different world, a silent world so large it had no end to it.” It’s not just Zhang Jiyuan’s sneaking around, and the suggestions of his doing something important but inaccessible to her, that sparks this feeling. Beauty begins to, as well. On another day, she finds the sky “so high and so blue it might have dripped with indigo dye. She couldn’t help but think that though she knew she was awake, she had no guarantee that this too wasn’t just part of a vaster, more distant dream.”

The operative irony in Peach Blossom Paradise is that a young woman searching for something that will turn out to be truly consequential cannot put a name to the thing she seeks; while the men—and they are all, with one important, dramatic exception, men—whose violent actions drive the change around her are motivated by clear-cut, if ephemeral, fantasy. The revolutionaries, and other sundry agitators who surface in the story, invoke a fable from 421 A.D. by the poet Tao Yuanming, “Peach Blossom Spring,” by now emblematic in China, describing a hidden settlement where escapees from war and their descendants live in harmony.

This imaginary paradise, suspended from time, blurred and thus receptive to their projections, provides these men with a shared purpose. Their projects may not always be successful, but they do not leave the ground unchanged in their wake. The novel, by contrast, in its busy and fragmented narration, invites us to question narratives that purport to be histories; the possibility of settled accounts; and the political power of metaphor, sentimentality, myth. The clarity of the revolutionaries’ convictions is offset by Xiumi’s confusion, which is like “a steel curtain hung right in front of her eyes, letting her see only parts and pieces of things, but never the entire scene.”

Xiumi may gain insight as the story progresses, but she won’t ever get this total picture. And despite the reader’s privileged knowledge about what is to come, nor do we. A gulf remains between the novel’s hyper-intimate narration, which hews closely to Xiumi’s feelings, and the retrospective story conveyed in the meticulous but ultimately incomplete footnotes. Knowing what the next decades bring does not answer the questions, Why did these revolutionaries fail, and others like them succeed? Should they have? And what are we to make of the world that emerged, marked by their deeds?

States know that settled accounts can be powerful things. Peach Blossom Paradise is bloody, sad, invigorating, and inconclusive. It doesn’t tell you what to think about the engines of history; it suggests that an arithmetic that allows you to assess change as “good” or “bad” may be unreliable. The novel’s partial knowledge reproduces the feeling of being a subject of history. Which returns us to the matter of form: Ge Fei’s experimentation with breaking the certitudes of narrative have taught him to find beauty and pleasure in the experience of unknowing, being an eye open, capable of registering even the subtlest signs of change, yet unable to see, just yet, what they mean.

Victoria Uren is a writer from Beijing and a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff. She was Book Post’s first-ever publishing assistant!

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