I am off on a tangent of reading “Asia” books. Earlier I read The Sympathizer, my Vietnam book. Here we have The Incarnations, my China book, next will be The Orphan Master’s Son, my Korea book. All three have received great reviews and praise as examples of great modern day literature. They are certainly that, and they take time to read and appreciate. So, in between times of careful reading, I also read indie published stuff and short stories. It keeps me from being so invested in the serious stuff (yep, fiction is also serious stuff) that I disassociate from everyday tasks.
Just as the title suggests, these are tales (as in more than one well-developed story) of past lives. It is not time travel, the lives occurred sequentially. The story revolves around two central characters with several names dependent on the lives described in different eras. In the present era we meet Wang Jun, a NAÏVE Beijing taxi driver and a person seemingly living in ignorance of his multiple pasts. Son of a wealthy, therefore necessarily corrupt, communist party official, Wang turned away from the easy life of a son and heir to riches and eventually became a taxi driver. His life is described up to the taxi driver epiphany through the memories of Wang supplemented by occasional interjections of the RECORDER. The recorder’s self-assigned job is to bring clarity and self-awareness to Wang. Both NAÏVE and RECORDER will assume several personal and sexual identities as they travel in tandem through several life iterations.
At the same time Barker treats the reader to fascinating character sketches, she informs us about several events unique to Chinese culture and history. The reader has the responsibility to remember this is a novel. The stories might inspire the curious reader to read referenced history on such things as the Tanka people, foot binding, protected foreign communities, and the Mongol invasions, to name a few events that have a unique Chinese interpretation.
There are several lines that stopped me even in the middle of some of the stories. They made sense in the context of the stories; read out of context they reminded me of lines that, if they appeared on the advertising blub of the book would make me want to buy and read the book. Here are a couple of examples:
The unnamed RECORDER in one of the letters to Wang.
Did you know Yida is a reincarnate too? In her first life she was a flea who lived in the fur of a stray dog. She guzzled the dog’s blood and used her hind legs to leap out of harm’s way when the mongrel’s claws scratched at the itch of her. In Yida’s second life she was a tapeworm, hooked onto the intestinal wall of a cow. She grew to two metres in length on the cow’s ingested grass and caused a gut ache so severe the beast lowed in constant pain. Though human in her third life, Yida is still a parasite. She saps your energy as you sleep, Driver Wang (p. 178).
Here, Wang is returning home to an empty house expecting to see Yida and daughter Echo.
Coffee cups and bowls, peeled eggshells and the walnuts Yida feeds Echo to improve her grades (persuaded by the superstition that they nourish the brain, because they are the same wrinkled, hemispherical shape) [p. 236-237].
As far as sex, there is plenty of it. Complex metrosexual relationships are described with very colorful language at many levels. From the use of the taboo “c” word to expressions such as “jade pavilion”, sex acts are described with delicacy appropriate to the character at different levels of society. Educated concubines express themselves differently from a self-educated fisherman apprentice.
Wang Jun exists in the present with almost no awareness of any past lives. There is that nagging feeling that there must be more to life than this. He has seen the highs and lows of his present life. His childhood with his parents was a bit unusual. A very wealthy father was almost never seen. Busy networking to maintain a high flying position in the communist party, dad was rarely home. When he was home, he was usually drunk. Not surprisingly, there were plenty of other women. Both Wang and mom were aware of this. Mom and Wang had an unusually close relationship, so much so that dad suspected mom-son incest. This leads to Wang being shunned and sent to a boarding school, mom descending gradually and with certainty into the deeper realms of mental illness, and dad just being dad, concerned only about himself. Mom eventually goes to a mental hospital for a protracted stay and Wang eventually learns she is dead. Not to be outdone in the mental health department, Wang also manages to be committed for an extended stay in a mental ward. He meets Zeng, a character (and suspected RECORDER) that will appear in many places and times throughout the book.
Released from the hospital, Wang turns his back on his heretofore life as son of a rich official and university student; he becomes a taxi driver. Yida, a massage parlor girl hanging out after work on a street corner in the rain, accepts Wang’s offer of a ride and marriage. An interesting character development is to watch how much alike Yida and mother Liu are, or become. Shades of Oedipus!!
While all this is going on Wang is steadily driving a taxi through pre-Olympic Games Bird Nest Beijing. Taxi drivers are willing or unwilling people watchers, there is no escape, so the reader is treated to the effects on the everyday Chinese populace of a society morphing into very materialistic capitalism. Occasionally, passengers will forgetfully leave things in his taxi. That is when the letters begin to appear. The table of contents will reveal there are at least six of them; all hint at something dark in Wang’s past. Wang takes these as a threat and hates the idea of being under surveillance by an unknown. First problem, who is placing the letters in his taxi? Which of the many passengers “forgot” them? This is the device that serves as a container for all the situations in the book.
Surprises are everywhere in this book. The reader meets characters that are certainly doomed to meet a violent end. Other characters die rather abruptly, severely interrupting reader complacency and expectations. The ending is both a surprise and complex. No one or two sentence spoiler could do it justice; I won’t attempt to construct one.
I will look for reviews from academics on Chinese history to see how they review or criticize this superb work of fiction.