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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Wang Gang

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To purchase English

Title: English
Author: Wang Gang
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 313 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: English - US
English - UK
English - Canada
English - France
  • Chinese title: 英格力士
  • Translated by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan
  • With an Afterword by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : moderately interesting take of the Cultural Revolution from a child's perspective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Wall St. Journal (Asia) . 17/4/2009 Lijia Zhang
The Washington Post A 17/4/2009 Carolyn See

  From the Reviews:
  • "Many books about China's Cultural Revolution focus on the brutality and violence of the period, and the suffering that "bad" people inflicted on the "good" and innocent. It's a relief to find one, then, that eschews the horrors of the era and puts a refreshing twist on an old story. (...) At times, though, the plot line is slackened by arbitrary events, such as Love running away from home for a few months. The English edition has improved the original work, a bestseller in China, by trimming down the text." - Lijia Zhang, Wall Street Journal (Asia)

  • "I loved this book and can't stop talking about it. But it's wrenching and merciless and, though fictional, rooted in historical truth and based on the life of its author, Wang Gang. (...) It's an incredible example of human resilience that Wang managed to survive and write this transcendent book." - Carolyn See, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       English is yet another autobiographical novel of the Cultural Revolution-years, narrated by a boy named Love Liu and covering most of his teenage years. It is set in the far west of China, in Ürümchi, in Xinjiang.
       It is a time when one still has to closely watch what one says, and political correctness (of sorts) is taken to all extremes. Much is, however, also arbitrary, with a great deal of power in the hands of those in the right positions -- something several of the men in the novel use to obtain sexual favours from women. Here out in the hinterland politics isn't quite as straightforward as perhaps in the large coastal urban centres, but Mao is still god - and with the building (and testing) of a hydrogen bomb in the area the government does keep a tight grip on things.
       Not everything is quite as one might expect. Much seems arbitrary from the child's point of view, as he is not privy to or aware of what goes into the decisions that are made, but even aside from that things such as the sudden possibility of learning English are surprising:

     Russian was gone. Uyghur was gone. English was coming.
       Surprisingly, too, English is rarely seen as a threat -- an imperialist, enemy language whose speakers are suspect -- even as language itself is repeatedly shown to pose all sorts of dangers and power. The totem of the book is the large, rare English dictionary the new English teacher, Second Prize Wang, owns, an object of immense desire to Love Liu. Even individual words are shown to have great power -- Love Liu is transfixed by the word 'masturbate' -- and while the young Love Liu may not have fully understood it, as he looks back to that time he sums up its ominous wretchedness perfectly:
     I still wonder how Second Prize Wang dared to use words like compassion or kind, even in those difficult years.
       English is seen through the eyes of a youth, with a still often uncomprehending innocence -- living in a time where:
nothing was more entertaining for us than an execution. The Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold said he liked to watch people quarreling, but we liked to watch people get executed. Where does our cruelty come from ? Did it fall from the sky ? Were we just born that way ?
       He maintains:
     Executions were necessary to maintain social stability, and they brought us kids enormous joy.
       In his Afterword Wang admits that: "Violence pervaded my childhood". Oddly, the book does not contain that much of it -- indeed, the worst of it tends to be the frequent hard slaps people (and especially the kids) get --; the focus is much more on lust, sex, and sexual discovery. A neighbour-girl and classmate (and not-quite-love-interest of Love Liu's), Sunrise Huang, is responsible for two murders over the course of the story, but neither is of that arbitrary brutality that marked the Cultural Revolution. Much more of the suffering that is inflicted is of men forcing themselves (with varying degrees of success) on various women.
       Unable to otherwise involve Love Liu with the adult-world sufficiently closely, Wang makes his narrator a peeping tom, always listening at doors and looking into windows -- which seems rather forced and gets tiresome. Still, it is an interesting cast of characters he presents, beginning with the cologne-wearing English teacher, Second Prize Wang, whom Love Liu desperately wants to emulate. Second Prize Wang lusts after another teacher, the beautiful Ahjitai, -- though he's also always eager to give the attractive girls in his class private lessons after school ... -- while Sunrise Huang has a crush on the English teacher. Meanwhile, another classmate, Garbage Li is head-over-heels in love with Sunrise Huang, and willing to do anything for her -- anything.
       Love Liu is an awkward sort of brat. He's smothered by the love of his intellectual parents, aware they mean well but not able to make anything of that. He's affectionate towards Sunrise Huang, yet also often very cruel. He wants to set himself apart and become someone else, but realises that it is all fake -- not that that prevents him from buying glasses that he doesn't need, merely to look (or think he does) like an intellectual gentleman.
       Love Liu's fumblings make for a variety of messes, some very serious. Unfortunately, Wang's presentation is quite unsteady, and veers between the would-be comic and the serious, far too often not following through with particular storylines. Second Prize Wang's obsession with Ahjitai may be convincing enough, but it's hard to believe, for example, that he would so blindly follow Love Liu to go watch her shower. (Not that he wouldn't do something creepy like that -- the sexual frustrations of the characters are nicely and convincingly presented -- but he would surely take more care when he does so.)
       Wang stuffs a lot into the book, and some of it almost feels random: Love Liu runs away from home for a month, and there's little sense of the consequences. Much is far-fetched, and some of that entirely unbelievable -- as when Love Liu and Ahjitai get stuck in mom's bomb shelter after an earthquake. The novel feels very hastily cut together, with too much bridging material lost.
       It's a shame: there are poignant stories and interesting characters here, but Wang doesn't seem to have the concentration to focus closely enough on them and as a consequence the narrative has a flighty feel to it. Wang also never pursues the question of 'Where does our cruelty come from ?' far enough. Certainly, the circumstances were conducive to it, but there's far too little introspection here; even the child could be expected to think more deeply about these things. (Arguably that's the point -- that he can't -- but he does contemplate other things more closely, so that doesn't seem to be the case either.)
       English is perfectly readable and certainly filled with enough events, but ultimately doesn't amount to much. Too bad; it has the makings of a decent novel -- if a lot of work were put into it.

       Note: The title of this novel poses one of the more unusual translation-problems we've ever encountered. Strictly speaking, 'English' is the correct translation; however the Chinese title -- 英格力士 -- is the phonetic rendering of the word 'English' (something along the lines of 'Ying Ge Li Shi', as they transliterate it on the copyright-page); the actual Chinese term for 'English' is, of course, 英语 (or 英語 or 英文). Wang uses the phonetic rendering because in the novel the students begin their English-studies this way -- and the whole concept of pronunciation crops up repeatedly. But obviously using the phonetic spelling for the title of the American edition of the book would probably cause more confusion than it is worth (even as it would be much closer to the original -- as is, English seems much too simple and stark). Interestingly, the French edition is also titled English; at least there the foreignness is conveyed. [See also this interview with the translators -- and specifically the third (and following) comments on this issue.]

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English: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Wang Gang (王刚) was born in 1960.

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