Sounds of
The River

Da Chen
Da Chen was born in Southern China in 1962. His family was of the landowning class, so they suffered considerable privation under the days of the infamous Red Guard. Da Chen's father, a traditional musician and intellectual, was forced to ruinous work in the fields. For much of his youth, Da Chen's and the family were hard-pressed to survive.

However, the great changes that came about with the death of Mao and the discrediting of Red Guard changed Da Chen's hopes, and the timing was perfect. He labored to excel at school, immersed himself in the study of English, found a sympathetic teacher and, at the beginning of this latest work, Sounds of the River, is on his way from the village of Yellow Stone in south China to the famed Beijing Language Institute --- being the only student from his area accepted to study there.

Sounds of the River tells of his days at the Language Institute, the achievement of his cherished goal of being accepted for study in the United States (he ends up at Union College, in Lincoln, Nebraska). The book ends with his saying farewell to his beloved family and setting forth to the New World.

§     §     §

We were smitten by Da Chen's previous autobiographical work Colors of the Mountain and in our review of it, we said,

    Given the sad history of his growing up, and the bleakness of the lives of those who were considered enemies of the Maoist state, one would expect Da Chen's story to be a tragedy on the order of Hunger, The Grapes of Wrath, or Black Boy.

    But this is a tale of defiance, and Colors of the Mountain ends up in triumph. With it's comic style, it can be seen as a picaresque bildungsroman, closer to Mark Twain than John Steinbeck.

We picked up Sounds of the River expecting similar delights but, alas, although it has some fine moments, and even though Da Chen is a man who cannot restrain his enthusiasms and loves, it comes closer to being a parody rather than an extension of the earlier work.

He's a facile creator, so we can't help but be captured by some of the stories: the train trip from Yellow Stone to Beijing reminds us of the best of slapstick on the order of "The Immigrant," cabins jam-packed with colorful characters. But Da Chen's tale best comes to life when he treats of his first real love, the English language. Not only is it his ticket from China, it carries for him a special aesthetic:

    In class, I understood almost all the instructions in that language now. It had taken two months for my deaf ears to be cured. The foreign words now glided against my eardrums with musical dings and pings. The mystery was pierced...

His story of learning reminds us of one touching passage in Richard Wright's autobiography when he suddenly develops a hunger for the written word, for Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken. Da Chen's master is Jack London, who leads him into the aesthetic of his beloved new language:

    Where others saw despair, I saw sunlight. Nothing beat the exhilarating feeling of gulping down buckets of knowledge while your competitors rested on bales of dry hay, chewing sweet carrots like that rabbit in the race.

English words begin to haunt him, and there is a similarity to Nabokov's glorious passage in Speak, Memory --- where the very words strike colors in his mind. For Nabokov, sounds turn into rainbows: for Da Chen, they are a delicious meal,

    Only in the waning hours of the day, in the eerily quiet night, would I chew over the learned words of the day, relishing the real taste of pretty words and beautiful phrases such as nostalgia, willow bay, nip and tuck, nape of a neck, and tiptoe. But my favorite of all favorites was the phrase the white silence, London's coinage for Alaska.

This is writing that's hard to beat, so tasty that we just want to pour milk and honey on it and scarf it down.

Unfortunately, Sounds of the River doesn't soar as consistently as his earlier work. However, even at his worst, Da Chen towers over his peers. One is tempted to compare him to the overly lauded Ha Gin. As I wrote at the conclusion of my review of the latter's Waiting,

    The book got lodged between front and back seat of my car, and during the course of a week --- a week in which I seemed to spend too much time waiting at bridges and waiting at the laundry and waiting in freeway pile-ups --- there was it was, Waiting. Reluctantly, I would pick it up, and army on, cursing myself that I forgot to travel with something more hefty and satisfying from the pile of other books in my bedroom.

I concluded,

    New Chinese literature is all the rage now. Waiting, describing life in a far north Chinese hospital during the Cultural Revolution, is about as crisp and interesting as last month's fortune cookie --- yet was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and even overpraised by the august ALA Booklist. Let us hope the prize-givers look around a bit and discover the real master of 21st Century neo-Chinese writing, Da Chen.

--- L. W. Milam

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