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BOOK REVIEWS


From The Asian Reporter, V14, #42 (October 12, 2004), page 14.

A brutal tale beautifully told

Rice

By Su Tong

Translated by Howard Goldblatt

Perennial, 2004

Paperback, 266 pages, $12.95

By Josephine Bridges

The title of this novel, Rice, is one of the simplest yet most important words in the world. It is the difference, for far too many people, between life and death. Su Tongís novel, set in China in the 1930s, is a chronicle of conflict, both among family members and in their larger community, but it is much more than that. A subtle exploration of the long-term effects of starvation, not only on those who have experienced it, but also on those who have never lived in its shadow, it is a brutal tale beautifully told.

Rice holds such a crucial place in this narrative that it comes close to being a character. "Coarse, raw rice from his home" accompanies protagonist Five Dragons on the journey from his flood-stricken village to the city where he offers to work for food at the Great Swan Rice Emporium. The sign above the gate to the emporium contains "four gold inlaid characters, although most people could only read the word for rice: MI." In his new capacity as the proprietorís helper, Five Dragons gazes at the rice in the hold of a boat, "glistening a gentle white in the inky darkness." He loves the storeroom where the rice is kept, even falling asleep "under a blanket of rice, shifting, illusory, fragrant Ö."

Five Dragons develops relationships with Proprietor Feng and his daughters Cloud Weave and Cloud Silk, eventually marrying both women, but he reserves his passion for rice. Knowing whatís important to his helper, Proprietor Feng tells Five Dragons, "Iíll let you marry my daughter, but youíll not get a single grain of my rice." After the proprietorís death, Five Dragons oversees the rice with a tyrannical obsession. Flying into a rage with his daughter-in-law following his nightly inspection of his familyís rice bowls, he tells her, "Lick your bowl clean Ö Every grain." Rice even plays an unsettling role in Five Dragonsí sexual relationships.

While Five Dragons is this novelís angriest character, he is surrounded by others whose lives are built on bitterness and vengeance. Says Cloud Weave to her sister early in the narrative, "If somebody chopped me up into little pieces and cooked me, youíd eat more than anybody." Later, Cloud Silk considers her closest relatives: "The men in our family are born killers, she mused, the women shameless sluts." The only truly sympathetic character in Rice is Five Dragonsí daughter Little Bowl, who is murdered too young to turn mean.

Su Tong suggests here that there are profound differences between those who have starved and those who have not. When the body of a child tumbles out of a sack of rice, Five Dragons knows that the boy died from eating raw rice, and he is close to the child in a way that he will never be close to his wife. "You donít understand a goddamned thing," he tells Cloud Silk, "since youíve never gone hungry." Rice also makes it clear that even those who have not themselves starved can be affected by starvation, at times in surprising ways. Five Dragonsí acute attention to rice saves his family when his daughter-in-law puts arsenic in their rice porridge and he tastes something wrong. When the would-be murderessís former husband comments that if he "had poisoned the porridge, no one would have tasted the arsenic," Cloud Silk shares a secret with her son and with the reader. "Who wouldnít like to poison this family? she remarked. Iíve thought about it for twenty years. I just never found the courage."

Rice is bleak, horrific, and obscene, but itís also well worth reading. I have never gone hungry, and before I read this novel I didnít think much about hunger, which separates me not only from the majority of people who have inhabited this planet throughout its history, but from some of the people I love most of all. Thanks to Su Tong, the gulf between us has narrowed just a little.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books

  Amazon