Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Book of the Month: The Good Earth (Pearl S Buck)

Pearl Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1938), was a prolific writer. In her long life Buck published more than 70 books of fiction and non-fiction.

Of the more than 35 novels Buck wrote probably the most famous, certainly the one for which she is most remembered, is her second novel, The Good Earth. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Six years later, when Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (within 12 years of her starting to write), The Good Earth was one of the two books (the other was a biography Buck wrote of her parents) the Nobel committee heaped praise on. Buck was praised by the Nobel committee for her ‘rich and truly epic descriptions of the peasant life in China’. 

Upon its publication The Good Earth, which vividly depicted for the Western readers—probably for the first time—, the peasants’ lives in rural life in China, became a best-seller. Over the decades it has sold millions of copies, and it is said that the novel has never been out of print in America.

Pearl Buck was perhaps best placed to give the Western readers a panoramic view of what until then were poorly understood ‘oriental’ culture and country. Daughter of a fundamentalist Christian missionary, Buck had spent her childhood and adolescent years in China. She was bilingual and could speak Chinese fluently (indeed, according to WikiPedia she also had a Chinese name). She returned to America in 1911 (on the eve of the Boxer revolution) where, three years later, she graduated. In 1914 she returned to China, where she lived for the next twenty years. In 1931, when The Good Earth was published, Buck had spent all but three of her 39 years in China.

The Good Earth tells the story of a man called Wang Lung, who starts his life as an impoverished peasant, leading a hand to mouth existence, in the north of the country; but attains wealth and prosperity by intelligence and hard work. The period is not explicitly specified, but it is most probably late 19th and early 20th century, that is, the years leading to the revolution that overthrew China’s last Imperial Qing dynasty. The novel opens with the wedding of Wang Lung. Born into a family of poor farmers, Wang Lung can not aspire to marry anyone other than a slave girl called O-lan in the house of one of the richest family (the house of Hwang) in the nearby town. In the next 300 pages the reader is treated to the vicissitudes of the life of Wang Lung, and, through them, day-to-day lives and customs of the Chinese peasantry. Wang Lung might have been born into a poor family, but he has a constant desire to better his lot. And he has figured out that the way to prosperity lay in acquiring land. The problem is he does not have the money to buy land, and, when the famine arrives in his region, he, like many other farmers, is forced to leave his village and go to a prosperous Southern city where his children beg and he does manual labour, dreaming all the while to return to his land. When the revolutionary protests reach the city and the rich flee, Wan Lung and O-lan are amongst the city’s poor—most of them displaced villagers like themselves—who loot their empty houses. Wang Lung returns to his village with silver and jewels and, with a zeal that would have modern-day venture capitalists nod with approval, goes around acquiring land. In due course the once-poor farmer who had to marry a slave girl is one of the richest men in the region. Rich enough not to worry when the floods arrive after seven years and most of the land is under water (but rich enough to worry that other, poverty-stricken, farmers would attack his house). In fact the floods present Wang Lung with the opportunity to frequent a ‘tea-shop’—which also serves as a brothel— regularly, and, much to the unhappiness of the faithful (but ugly) O-lan, who has borne him three sons, Wan Lung brings home a mistress in the tradition of rich Chinese men of his generation. Financially Wan Lung prospers year after year, but if you thought prosperity brought the man happiness and peace of mind, you’d be wrong. All of his sons are disappointments to him in different ways. The long-suffering O-lan dies a painful, lingering death. And, as Wan Lung nears the end of his long life, he realises that his sons do not share his love of the land that has brought prosperity to the family.

The Good Earth is a story full of family drama and intrigues, narrated in a style that suggests that the unseen, omnipresent narrator is keeping her cool distance from them. If it was only that The Good Earth wouldn’t have won the Pulitzer and would not have fetched the Nobel for its writer. The Good Earth also gives the Western reader a taste of what the life was in pre-revolutionary China. The approach is unsentimental, but also non-judgmental. One guesses that Buck was able to achieve this neutrality because she had grown up in China, watching its way of life around her. Nevertheless it is still remarkable because Buck, a daughter of fundamentalist Christian missionaries and married to one at the time, must have had her Western identity and cultural values, which, to put it mildly, were different from those in rural China. Buck might have spent all her life until then in China; she might have had great love for the Chinese; she might even have had a Chinese name; but she was not Chinese. In her core values she was a Westerner. (Buck returned to America in 1934 as the climate became increasingly unsettled and dangerous in the country with the civil war type situation, and never returned to China, although that was probably not because of want of trying.  During the Cultural Revolution Buck was denounced as an ‘American Cultural Imperialist’ and in 1972, when Richard Nixon famously visited Mao’s China, Chou En Lai refused Buck the visa.) The narration of rural Chinese customs some of which, such as foot-binding, must have seemed strange (to say the least) to the Western sensibilities (while some others such as taking on a mistress and installing her in the house would not have been totally alien, although it was not done openly and attracted societal disapprobation). Some other practices such as poor families selling female children as slaves to rich families were clearly dictated by the grinding poverty—it was either that or death by starvation. The approach of Buck towards what she must have seen all around her and that which she depicted in The Good Earth befits that of a university professor (she taught English at the University of Nanking throughout the 1920s) dispassionately explaining a theorem. Nothing wrong in a writer wishing to keep a distance from the characters in his novels; Arvind Adiga has done this brilliantly in his Last Man in Tower. The Good Earth takes detachment to another level altogether; reading it gives you the feeling of reading something that is lacking in passion and vigour. The narrative is curiously flat, and matters are not helped by the dialogues, which, while easy to read, sound (certainly by today’s standards) dated. At no stage does the narrative suck the reader in the dramas of Wan Lung’s life. The two main protagonists in the novel, Wan Lung and his wife O-lan, do not really come alive for the reader, their inner lives do not light up. Reading The Good Earth is akin to watching an hour long documentary on the Masai warriors on the BBC: we learn a lot about the quaint customs and practices of these African tribes (and depending upon our dispositions may swoon or shudder), but we do not really understand how they think. I guess this has happened (in the novel) because Buck spent live amongst the Chinese, not with them.

The Good Earth is an outsider’s account of the life in rural China in the late 19th and early 20th century. One can understand why it appealed to the Western minds at the time of its publication. It certainly is a landmark novel in the 20th century fiction in English language. Is it a great novel? Probably.