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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Bolshevik Salute

by
Wang Meng


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Bolshevik Salute



Title: Bolshevik Salute
Author: Wang Meng
Genre: Novel
Written: 1979 (Eng. 1989)
Length: 162 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Bolshevik Salute - US
Bolshevik Salute - UK
Bolshevik Salute - Canada
Le salut bolchévique - France
  • A Modernist Chinese Novel
  • Chinese title: 布礼
  • Translated and with an Introduction and a critical essay by Wendy Larson
  • With a Foreword by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : ultimately too blindly simplistic, but effective and quite powerful presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The China Quarterly . 12/1992 Gregory B. Lee
Le Monde diplomatique . 11/1989 Jacques Decornoy
The NY Times Book Rev. . 18/3/1990 Marsha L. Wagner


  From the Reviews:
  • "(L)e Salut bolchévique est une délirante variation sur le thème de la langue de bois, de l’imbécillité, et des infaillibilités successives du Parti. (...) Foi ? Clin d’oeil ? Dérision ? Le livre, ouvert sur une poésie pour enfants, se clot par les deux derniers vers de l’Internationale. (...) Faux naïf, Wang Cheng le sait mieux que quiconque, mais sa cinglante amertume porte malgré tout en elle l’espoir des désespérés." - Jacques Decornoy, Le Monde diplomatique

  • "Though it ends with a didactic affirmation of "our country, our people, our great, glorious, correct Party," Bolshevik Salute emphasizes the protagonist's dark period of suffering and doubt, and the author brazenly creates characters who directly criticize the party. (...) Though tame by Western standards, its minimalist plot, nonchronological arrangement of 26 episodes, and emphasis on states of mind were boldly innovative in 1979. The depiction of the protagonist's subjective inner life was itself subversive." - Marsha L. Wagner, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       As translator Wendy Larson notes in her Introduction, as well as in her critical essay afterword, Wang Meng's 1979 novella Bolshevik Salute marks a departure from the realist narratives that had dominated Chinese fiction in the People's Republic. The narrative tells the story of Zhong Yicheng, who embraced the cause of the Communist Party as a teenager and continued to be devoted to it, even as he was repeatedly accused of being an enemy of the people in the decades that followed, a victim both of the Anti-Rightist movement of the late 1950s and then the Cultural Revolution. His story is, however, not presented simply chronologically; instead, Wang divides his novel into seven chapters, and a total of twenty-six segments, moving back and forth in time from one segment to the next: the earliest dates to January 1949, the seventeen year-old high school student who had already been a party member for over two years already playing a role in the decisive events of that time, the most recent segments set in the then-present-day, 1979.
       Zhong Yicheng is completely dedicated to the cause, but the cause repeatedly doubts him. The opening segment, set in 1957, has an innocuous poem of his -- a mere four lines, in its edited-for-publication form -- that is published in a newspaper being denounced at great length by "the new star of literary criticism", who argued one must analyze the poem:

from the viewpoint of political struggle; one must not lower one's guard and be fooled by a wol in lamb's clothing or a poisonous snake in the guise of a beautiful woman.
       Willful misinterpretation of Zhong Yicheng's words and deeds are a repeated theme in the novel: they're the story of his life, as it were -- right down to his heroic actions when a fire breaks out in the dead of night but he comes under suspicion of having been involved in causing it. He is: "branded an anti-Party, anti-socialist, capitalist, rightist element", leading Zhong Yicheng to doubt himself: he doesn't see it -- he is completely devoted to the Party -- but since the Party can do no wrong, he must be at fault. The cancer of individualism is a convenient explanation and excuse -- Zhong Yicheng can believe that his motives were impure, that, by always trying to be the best in his class and hoping to do great deeds he was seeking personal glory rather than thinking only of the greater good, for example. He tells his girlfriend:
I don't think I ever knew how really bad I was ! From childhood on my soul was full of the poisonous germs of individualism and heroicism.
       He even manages to convince himself that to complain about the bad service at a restaurant when they waited for an hour for their food only to find the servers had forgotten about their order was an unacceptable "dissatisfaction with socialism" -- though of course Wang uses examples such as that to show that the system was, indeed, rickety and flawed, and deserving of the occasional criticism, individual or not (forgetting food-orders is surely beyond the pale in any restaurant, regardless of the system it operates in).
       Zhong Yicheng tries always to make the best of the situation. Accepting that the Party deems he needs reëducation, he throws himself into whatever they ask of him wholeheartedly -- even essentially wallowing in manure.
       Even Zhong Yicheng does have his doubts at times. The torture seems pointless, and the interrogation-questions completely at odds with his fervent, selfless devotion to whatever the Party demands. He wants to please, but doesn't know how to convince the powers that be that he is true to the cause. His worldview is repeatedly thrown into question by yet more seemingly wrongheaded actions by the Party, as it even turns on those who had been its darlings. But since the Party is the means to the glorious end they all seek, he can't believe that they are doing anything that is truly wrong. Wang effectively shows Zhong Yicheng trying to come to grips with a system that repeatedly lets him -- and its ideals -- down, with the jumps back and forth in time, and from highs to lows, a particularly effective technique to illustrate his struggles.
       Zhong Yicheng does have supporters, and those who are willing to provide some help in his difficult times. Above all, he has a devoted girlfriend and then wife, Ling Xue -- a true comrade who always believes in him, while also being devoted to the cause (and who also suffers because of it) -- their romantic ideals bound inextricably with their personal-political beliefs: "Their love had been built on mutual Bolshevik salutes and mutual exchange of advice".
       The story may seem somewhat simplistic, a holdover from the ideologically pure socialist realism of earlier communist Chinese fiction, but the story is not entirely uncritical. If the greater 'truth' is unimpeachable, Wang nevertheless suggests that there have been missteps along the way, an over-eagerness to root out bad elements that caused (a great deal of) unnecessary harm.
       If slightly marred by a too deferential (and sentimental !) conclusion -- "Such a good country, such a good Party !" they say, while: "Crying hot tears" ... -- Bolshevik Salute nevertheless impresses with its very effective presentation: it is, until the end, a genuinely powerful story, with much of its power coming from Wang's creative presentation. Formally, with the story's switches back and forth, and the see-sawing good and bad, it is interesting and impressive, not just in its own local literary-historical context, but simply as a work of fiction.
       Bolshevik Salute is largely a literary-historical curiosity, but it holds up beyond that as well. Aspects of this ideological work do read very awkwardly for contemporary Western readers and some of the writing can seem very basic, but Wang's presentation makes for a largely believable story; much of it is too simplistic, but it's also quite surprisingly nuanced in places, beneath what might come across as bombast. Most significantly, the story-telling -- especially in this time-jumping presentation -- is simply very good, making for a good and often even suspenseful read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 August 2018

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Links:

Bolshevik Salute: Reviews: Wang Meng:
  • Profile by Jianying Zha in The New Yorker
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Wang Meng (王蒙) was born in 1934. He served as Minister of Culture 1986 to 1989.

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© 2018 the complete review

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