Magnolia. Ketmie. Chrysanthème. Gardénia. Armoise. Orchidée. Pivoine. Jasmin. Azalée. Camélia. Lotus. To have a book where ten characters share the name of flowers would be an artistic touch, but on its own it would be little more. Beautiful yes, for a book which already looks beautiful, but while beauty shouldn't be underestimated - it is the reason why I picked it out, to join an already packed bag of books that I had on my last day in Dakar at a beautiful bookstore, spending too profligately on my indulgence - beauty alone needs something more to sculpt it and give it meaning. The genius of Fleurs de Chine by the Francophone Chinese author Wei-Wei is the connections that it weaves between the flowers it presents, turning what is if one would wish to speak bluntly, a collection of short-stories, into a novel that delights, intrigues, saddens, brings cause for reflection, thrills, and for its beautiful and intricate writing, inspires admiration for its beauty, which adds up to far more than individual blossoms but rather into a dazzling bouquet. In following the individual, but interconnected stories, of 10 different (9 perhaps might be more correct, but you will learn why that clarification is necessary in reading) Chinese women throughout the 20th century, from Magnolia and her sister who flee from the the Loess plateau in China near its beginning, to Azalée, a child at the end of the century whose friend commits suicide, indirectly the result of the One Child Policy, it draws the reader every chapter intimately into the life, the mind, the soul, of a person as real as any of that of flesh and blood. I had thought perhaps in reading it to qualify it with the adjective "feminist", a word which rightly or wrongly attires disrepute and conflict these days. It would be an appropriate title I feel, for this book which shows so many women, so realistic, who one grows to understand and to cherish. But I think that the book is one which applies to the human condition as a whole, and so perhaps I would label it as humanist, in its careful attention and discovery of the individual, one related to others and part of a society, but which takes joy in showing the struggles, the plight, the joy, the successes, the stories, of individual people in circumstances both normal and extraordinary, linked together by their slender threads of blood, of life, of humanity.
It would do the book a grand disservice to attempt to write out the stories of the people that it contains, without them being set into the grand tapestry that Fleurs de Chine undertakes. And thus I will not try, and only mention its scattering of stories: a woman imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution for breaking a statue of Mao by accident. A woman divorced, who travels in search of her family and her history. A woman who has forgotten her past, and who forges a new life. A girl weighed down by the journal of her friend, dead by suicide. A woman who flees along the long trek, through the marshes, through the passes, through the mountains, of the Long March. A woman trapped in a marriage occasioned by rape, who must discover both that another life and independence exist. A girl who helps her sister escape the wrath of her parents opposed to her love. A woman whose child is taken from her, and who desperately attempts to find a way to bring him back. A woman who sees the visages of a city from her shop. A woman who navigates the tremendous upsets of the Chinese economic reforms to find prosperity. A woman who attires misfortune, and who finds solace only when this life ends, and another begins. There are many stories, from many times and many places.
In reading through this book, the connections between the characters pop up themselves like little flowers, little buds that one catches on and traces. Lusheng, the daughter of Auroure, comrade of Chrysanthème, born on the Long March, who crosses paths with Orchidée, daughter of Chrysanthème more than half a century later, Pivoine who in her desperate attempt to regain her own daughter kidnaps the child of a businessman who had committed fraud against her husband, an act which ripples through the stories of Azalée and Jasmin, Lotus the daughter of Pêche Parfumée, the sister of Magnolia, who raises scorpions and delivers them to restaurants, who attends on the meal of Jasmin - the book writes with a subtle touch in laying out this web of connections. It does not infantilize the reader, it does not point out too clearly the connections, but instead leaves one to see the clever game the author has done. Ketmie forms the thread of tying it together, but not merely as a prop, as a story in of herself. The bonds between them are ethereal, are sometimes invisible, but they are always there. I can only say that I regret that I myself have such a poor head for genealogy and for relationships of blood, for I am sure that I miss being able to fully see the ways in which families unfold throughout the generation. Perhaps it is due to the very atomization of the individual of American society, perhaps merely my own vision and thoughts, but to me the blossoming lines that Wei-Wei draws are ones which appear so tantalizingly close, but which I can never quite grasp.
There are few books which manage the sophistication, the elegance, and the emotion that Fleurs de Chine possesses. There are fewer still which combine it with such a beautiful hand, one which writes descriptions of places and people that brings them not merely to life as the clichéd expression goes, but which paints them like a canvas with the personability that instills confidence in the fidelity of the author's writings, making one feel more like an eyewitness privy to the events as a close and cherished confidant, rather than a distant and alienated reader (something which reveals itself nearly from the beginning, when Pêche Parfumée sets to sowing, with the author's hand illuminating the scene as if she herself was there), and which speaks with such eloquence on the transformations which have rocked and traversed a society during a century. A cycle contains itself within its pages, from Pêche Parfumée fleeing to find a marriage of her own love, to Jasmin who leaves a marriage imposed on her by rape. Never quite an exact repetition, but enough that the book feels complete, that it is more than a hymn to progress, but a reflection of life and people.
I have been learning French for several years, enough I hope that I am able to recognize beauty in the language, even if I still labor to attempt to turn my own hand to be able to achieve a pale shadow of the same eloquence, and the book's descriptions are simply stunning. It is also in a practical sense, a great learning exercise, for the author's rich and varied writing makes every page a bounty of new words, both grand and small, to learn, while it still maintains the clarity and fluidity to make it understood. Even if your level of French isn't perfect, the book is one which I recommend greatly, and one is sure to both enjoy the beautiful story along the way while simultaneously learning quite a bit. And for those interested in Chinese history in the 20th century, while I have my doubts about some of the initial parts concerning Magnolia and Pêche Parfumée, the book to me demonstrates that it is an enlightening, gripping, and often times moving display of the changes of Chinese society. The Long March, where hope and despair grip the long columns who trod wearily onward in their hope for a more just society, despair, folly, and survival in the Second World War, the caprice and tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, the life of children as the end of the second millennia draws near, peasants as they deal with the transformations of the Chinese economic reforms, be it with the tragedies occasioned by their reduction to impoverished and exploited proletariat, the quotidian life of an average member of the female working class of the new Chinese cities, or their transformation into capitalists and their struggles with the social issues and changes tearing apart the fabric of traditional life, all of these are grippingly evident. For its many reasons, a bouquet of flowers like Fleurs de Chine is a book which should be treasured.
© 2018 Ryan Thomas