Saturday, 23 November 2013

Booker Prize 2013: the Winner and Some Short-listed Novels

Until she won the Man Booker Prize last month I had not heard of Eleanor Catton. That does not mean anything. There are many things I am ignorant of. That I had not heard of a Canadian born talented author from New Zealand is more a reflection of the limited bounds of the fiction landscape in which I roam than the worldwide popularity (or lack thereof) of Eleanor Catton. It might also be a reflection of the thorny path that lies ahead when one takes the decision of striking it out as an author of literary fiction. When you are a young author embarking on a writing career and tell people that you are going to write literary fiction they are likely to snigger as if they have been told a really good blonde joke. Writing literary fiction might bring you respect, but chances are eight out of ten that you’d need to find a day time job to keep the body and soul together. I once heard Kazuo Ishiguro in a literary event in which he expressed incredulity (not very convincingly) that almost twenty five years after he published his first novel he found himself a prestigious writer festooned with more awards than I have fingers on my hand and also a popular writer. This apparently is very unusual. When Ishiguro did an MA in literature he was taught by Angela Carter, most of whose books were out of print; they didn’t sell. She was therefore obliged to do additional jobs such as writing columns for magazines and correcting essays of people who had the money to pay the fees of a literature course but not the sense to realize that they did not have talent.

Anyway, I would not have heard of Catton if she had not won the Man Booker Prize. I would not have bothered to read her novel, the size of a one storey house, either, if she had not won the award. I make no apology for this. Life is too short to read unknown authors, however talented, who are fortunate enough to be short-listed for prestigious awards but not fortunate enough to win it. This is the other thing about the literary prizes, as far as I am concerned. Once in a while they reward a relatively unknown novelist who, after bagging the prize, gets the much required (and deserving) publicity. When she won the Man Booker Prize Catton set some records. At 27 she is the youngest Booker winner. At 834 pages, The Luminaries is the longest novel to have won the prize; and she is the last winner of the prize before it opens up to the Americans.

After I read that Catton had won the Booker, I had a look at the short-listed novels and their authors. I recognized three names (not including Catton): Jhumpa Lahiri, Jim Crace and Colm Toibin. I had become aware of Jhumpa Lahiri years ago the same way I heard of Eleanor Catton, when Lahiri bagged the Pulitzer for her debut collection of stories. I then read her first full length novel, The Namesake, which was first rate. Jim Crace is a British novelist, who is difficult to categorize. I have read a few of his novels some of which I liked and others I found intolerable. Finally there was Colm Toibin. I have read one of his novels; I think it was entitled Brooklyn, which, I remember, was a decent novel although it progressed at a speed so sedate that in comparison a stoned sloth would be like Usain Bolt.

I read three of the six short-listed novels this month: The Luminaries, which won the award; The Lowland (Jhumpa Lahiri); and Harvest (Jim Crace).  I would have read The Lowland even if it was not short-listed, as Jhumpa Lahiri is a favourite author. I read the The Luminaries solely because it won the prize. I decided to read Harvest because it was the bookies’ favourite. (I have always wondered what makes the bookies zero on one particular book as a likely winner. I can’t imagine the bookies having arrived at their decision based on the literary merit of Jim Crace’s novel. A bookie with literary inclination is a contradiction in terms, a bit like—I don’t know—imaginative porn. The whole point of porn is that it makes no demands on your imagination; it lays everything you can think of (and some more you don’t have the imagination to think of) right in front of you. The bookies made Jim Crace the favourite to win the Booker, I suspect, for no reason other than that he is English, generally considered to be unfairly underrated, and is nearing the end of his writer career. In recent years Hilary Mantel, Howard Jacobson, and Julian Barnes, all of them (certainly the last two) in the twilight of their distinguished careers and cruelly overlooked in the past for the prize, were rewarded for—I don’t know—not giving up and publishing novels year in year out. It was, thus, not unreasonable to suppose that Crace would be similarly rewarded. It was a clever guess; except that it was not all that clever, because Crace didn’t win.)

I don’t really know what to make of Harvest; but I know this much: I didn’t like it. The novel is set in an indeterminate time in the past. If you are the kind of geek who leads a sad life so bereft of worthwhile interests that he actually spends time learning English history, you’d place the time of the novel as mediaeval, starting with the Tudors, when arable land was forcibly closed and converted into pasture for sheep. If you do not possess this useless piece of information, I am afraid, it won’t make any difference; you are still likely to find the novel slightly less riveting than an Argos catalogue.  The novel tells the story of the destruction of an insignificant nameless village through the eyes of one of the village’s inhabitants who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of weeds, flowers and plants, and an obsession with the geography of the imaginary village that—no matter how much you try to be understanding and sympathetic—is not healthy. He talks too much; you get him talking and he will flog a dead horse into a dog burger. The medieval hicks of the village are happy growing barley and, left to them, would have carried on growing it for the rest of their sorry lives when they are faced with the prospect that, they fear, will make their sorry lives sorrier. The new master of the land announces his intention to convert the land into a pasture for sheep; which means that a significant proportion of the 58 villagers would not have jobs. The new master of the village has obviously not taken communication lessons which are mandatory for the non-job managers in public services in the UK; so he makes no attempt to soften the blow by telling the villagers that what he is doing is efficiency savings, trying to get more for less and, even though the villagers can’t appreciate this— just because they are going to lose their livelihood; very selfish of them—it is actually—in the big scheme of things—for everyone’s benefit. The novel describes the responses of the villagers and the eventual destruction of the village, brought about by a couple of outsiders who are unjustly punished by the old master of the village. Jim Carce’s prose is polished, and manages the rare feat of being precise and pedantic at the same time. Harvest is a frustrating novel, however: there are many mysteries, but Crace does not provide any answers. As I read the novel I kept on thinking that surely there will be a twist; perhaps the narrator is unreliable, and I’d learn at the end that the whole thing is perhaps a dream; or, maybe, it is not the outsiders but the narrator himself who has wreaked havoc on the village for some long-forgotten slight. Alas! There are no twists; nothing that will make you shake your head and say, admiringly, “I didn’t see this coming. Isn’t Crace clever?” Crace has announced that Harvest is his last novel; he won’t publish more novels. After reading Harvest you are forced to conclude that it is the right decision.

 Eleanor Catton: I am sure she was a swatter in school and irritated everyone by being Little Miss Perfect

The novel that tries hard—so hard, in fact, that it is heart-wrenching—to be clever is the Booker winner The Luminaries. It is a novel that is very Dickensanian in its scope and ambition. Set in the 19th century New Zealand towards the dying days of its gold rush, the novel has, at its heart, a mystery. The novel pullulates with characters, so many, in fact, that you find yourself going back and forth when a character making its appearance on page 324 leaves you with the uneasy feeling that you have met him before, perhaps in the first hundred pages. Catton employs the technique of looking at and describing the same event from the eyes of different characters. After a while it gets a tad wearisome. Many of the interesting characters that dominate the first section of the novel fizzle out (disappointingly) as the novel progresses. The novel is also a love-story between two of the characters. The trouble is none of the characters is engaging enough, and you don’t really care what happens to them.  The Luminaries is an intricately plotted novel with more twists than a Russian contortionist giving a private performance to Vladimir Putin. The novel goes to and fro in time and Catton has structured the narrative in a manner that makes the plot obfuscating (as if it is not confusing enough already). Reams of pages are devoted to describing external appearances of the characters, the dresses they wear etcetera, but their inner lives remain opaque to the reader. The main cast is rather neatly divided into good eggs and bad eggs; there is little subtlety. That said the mystery of the plot makes it an interesting read for the best part. There are some other clever things Catton has done in the novel (so I read in some reviews). For example, each successive section has exactly half the number of words of the preceding section. (What purpose, if any, this gimmick serves is difficult to fathom; it also means that the last few chapters in the last section of the novel have less words than those in the introduction to those chapters.) At 834 pages the novel is too long and, I dare say, the last 150 pages or so do not really add much to the story as Catton covers the same ground she has covered fifty times in the preceding 700 pages. The Chair of the Man Booker Prize, probably aware that many readers would find the length of the novel daunting, urged them to persevere with the novel. If they did, he promised they would find rewarding. He is probably right. If you are on the lookout for a smashing good read set in the Victorian era, I would unhesitatingly recommend Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I. At more than 600 pages Gillespie and I is not exactly short, either, but it is a deeply satisfying read. Cunningly plotted, full of mysteries, and boasting of gorgeous prose, the novel, unlike The Luminaries, offers oblique psychological insight into the working of the mind of its remarkable protagonist.

              Jhumpa Lahiri: has she considered an alternative career as a catwalk model?

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is set in two continents: India and America. It tells the story of two brothers and their wife. Yes, you read it correctly; the two brothers have the same wife, though not, I should hasten to clarify, at the same time. One of the brothers dies in the first quarter of the novel and the surviving brother marries his widow who is pregnant with the dead brother’s child, except that the dead brother dies without knowing that he has impregnated his wife; moreover, the dead brother, when he was alive, was not exactly a child-friendly person and did not want a child. The novel traces the lives of the brothers, the wife and the child. The Lowland is a tragedy. In simple, unostentatious prose Lahiri lays bare how a single catastrophic event—the death of one of the brothers—has a devastating effect on the lives of the surviving protagonists of the novel. Lahiri weaves her story with real-life, if little known (at least to me), historical events in India, such as the ultra-left wing Naxalite  movement in Eastern India, inspired by Mao Tse Tung’s Communist revolution in China, that attempted to subvert the parliamentary democracy by terrorism.  The Lowland is a profoundly affecting novel that tells the story of truncated, unfulfilled lives. A satisfying read.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Book of the Month: Mao: the Unknown Story (Jung Chang & Jon Halliday)

“Mao Tse-tung [sometimes called Mao Zedong in the West], who for decades, held absolute power over the lives of one quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth century leader.”

Thus begins Mao: The Unknown Story, the biography of Mao, written by Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, and her historian husband, Jon Halliday. The opening also leaves little doubt in readers’ minds what is going to follow. Hitler and Stalin, the two dictators of the twentieth century, have long since fallen from grace, both within their countries as well as outside. It was only a matter of time before someone did a hatchet job on the reputation of the founder of the People’s Republic of China. Almost thirty years after his death, Chang and Halliday have done just that. And it is not a Cook’s Tour of the life of one of the extraordinary men of the twentieth century: it is a liberally referenced and painstakingly assembled eight hundred pages behemoth.

In seventy seven chapters this biography, which the Communist Party of China dare not allow to be published in that country, traces Mao’s life from his birth to his death, and, in the process, attempts to shatter every legend and myth associated with his life.

Born in the last decade of the nineteenth century, in the Shaoshan valley in Hunan, Mao was the eldest of three children. He apparently had a close and intense relationship with his mother—probably the only person whom he genuinely loved in his life—and a very uneasy relationship with his father. The father and son hated each other and frequently clashed. Many years later, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, Mao remarked, “My father was a bad man. If he were alive today he should be ‘jet-planed’ (an agonising position in which the subject’s arms were wrenched behind his back and head pushed downwards)”. Mao was a rebellious student and was expelled from a few schools for being headstrong and disobedient. At the age of fourteen he was married to a woman—this was an arranged marriage—four years older than him. This was the first of his four marriages, and his wife, who had no name—she was called ‘woman Luo’, Luo being her family name—died within a year. This early marriage turned Mao into a fierce opponent of arranged marriages. Mao mentioned his first wife only once, at least in official interviews, in his life.

After the death of his wife Mao left the valley and arrived in Changsha, in 1911, on the eve of the Republican Revolution that was to bring an end to the rule of the Manchu dynasty, also ending, in the process, two thousand years of Imperial rule in China. Mao’s early writings, quoted in the biography, during this period, give an inkling of the course he was to follow. “The nature of the people of this country is inertia,” he wrote. “They worship hypocrisy, are content with being slaves, and are narrow minded.” He then went on to propose that all the collection of prose and poetry in China after the Tang and Sung dynasty should be burned in one go. Uttermost proclamations of a hotheaded youngster? Chang and Halliday try to show that these remarks of Mao, made when he was barely twenty, harbingered the theme that epitomised his rule that lasted for more than quarter of a century: complete destruction of the Chinese culture.

These early speeches and writings also throw into sharp relief Mao’s views on morality. “I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s action has to be benefiting others,” he wrote. “Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others. . . People like me want to. . . satisfy our hearts to the full. . . Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me. People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we do not have duty to other people. I am responsible only for the reality that I know, and absolutely not responsible for anything else. I do not know about the past, I do not know about the future. They have nothing to do with the reality of my own self.”

As regards history, this is what Mao had to say: “Some say one has a responsibility for history. I don’t believe it. I am only concerned about developing myself. . . I have my own desire and act on it. I am responsible for no one.”

Throughout his long life Mao saw no reason to deviate from the position he had explicated in his younger years.

Mao also revealed his fascination in upheaval and destruction early on. Upheavals and destruction, for him, were desiderata of the world. “Giant wars”, he believed, “will. . never become extinct.” He firmly believed that enduring peace was “unendurable to human beings.” “Tidal waves of destruction will have to be created”, he warned, “to end this state of peace.” He readily admitted that when he read history, he “adored the times of war”, and when he got to the periods of peace and prosperity, he was bored. Like Hitler, Mao did not do anything, when he finally wrested control of China from Chiang-Kai-Shek, that he said he would not do.

Chang and Halliday try to lay to rest other myths associated with Mao. Contrary to the official version of the Chinese government, Mao was not a founding member of the Communist Party of China (CPP). The formation of CPP, Chang and Halliday claim, was engineered by one Gregory Voltinsky, a representative the Comintern sent after the Bolsheviks took Central Siberia, in cahoots with some Chinese Marxists, most notable amongst them Chen Tu-hsiu, the undisputed leader of the Chinese communists. Mao, at this time, had become close to the charismatic Tu-hsiu, and was himself known as a radical. He opened a bookshop which had the following declaration which he had penned himself: “There is no new culture in the entire world. Only a little flower of new culture has been discovered in Russia on the shores of Arctic ocean.” It was around this time that Mao formally expressed his communist beliefs. In a letter written to a friend he declared that he “deeply agreed” with the idea of using the “Russian model to reform China and the world.”

The Communist Partyof China (CPP) was formed by Moscow as a Trojan horse to manipulate the much bigger Nationalist party (founded in 1912 by the merger of a number of Republican groups). Stalin ordered the local communists to join the Nationalist party, but all the senior leader refused, having very little regard for Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Nationalist party. It was at this stage that Mao, who until then had found it impossible to reach the higher echelons in the CPP, mostly, the authors say, because of his ineffectiveness at organising labour and recruiting, was brought by the Russians to the party HQ. Mao, who at that stage, did not believe in the prospects of the CPP, promptly joined the Nationalist party. The outward enthusiasm shown by the pragmatic Mao for the Moscow line of cooperating with the Nationalists shot him into the core of the party. Mao became very active in the Nationalist party which drew fire from the ideological purists in the CPP. He was criticised as ‘opportunistic’ and ‘right wing’ and kicked out of the CPP. He returned to his home village of Shaoshan equipped with over 50 kg of books, claiming he was ‘convalescing’. He became more active in the Nationalist party after his friend Wang Ching-wei became the leader of the Nationalist party following the death of Sun Yat-sen, although he (Mao) still remained essentially a member of the CPP. At the top of the Nationalists’ agenda was anti-imperialism, so this became the theme of Mao’s activity. At this time Mao showed, for the first time, an interest in the question of Chinese peasantry, which, Chang and Halliday claim, came on the heels of an urgent order from Moscow and not out of any personal conviction or inclination. His position in respect of the peasants, when the Russians had first ordered the CPP a few years earlier to pay attention to this question was: “On the peasant question, the class line must not be abandoned, there is nothing to be done among the poor peasants and it is necessary to establish ties with landowners and ‘shenshih’ [gentry]. . .”  Mao was appointed by the Nationalists as a founding member of the Nationalists’ Peasant Movement Committee. When, two years later, the Nationalists tried to bring about a Russian style revolution in the Hunan region, violence and total mayhem erupted. Mao was invited by the Nationalists to his home province to give guidance. It was during his stay in Hunan that Mao discovered in himself a love for violence and bloodthirsty thuggery. He said, later, “Not until I stayed in Hunan for over thirty days till I completely changed my attitude.” This enjoyment which bordered on sadism preceded his affinity for Leninist violence and sprang from his character. He mentioned in his reports to the Nationalists at the time that he experienced “a kind of ecstasy never experienced before. . . it is wonderful!” Mao, in later years, went out of his way to cover the fact that in the initial years of the CPP he was extremely keen on the Nationalist party (albeit at the behest of his Russian masters) which became the chief enemy of the CPP.

Many in the Nationalist party were unhappy at their leaders’ decision to become bedfellows with the communists. In 1927 the Peking government raided Russian premises and seized a large cache of documents which showed the close links between the CPP and the Soviets. It was at this stage Chiang Kai-shek, the commander of the Nationalist army broke links with the communists: he began ‘cleansing’ the Nationalist party of communist links, and issued a ‘Wanted’ list of 197 communists in which Mao’s name was second. The chief of the Nationalist party, Wang Ching-wei, Mao’s mentor in the Nationalist party, decided to sever ties with the Communists. Mao was faced with a choice; and he decided to stay with the Communists. This was his political coming of age.

When Chiang Kai-shek broke with the Communists, Stalin decided to pull out all the ‘Communist units’ out of the Nationalist army which were to move to the South coast of China to collect arms shipped in from Russia and set up a base. He also ‘ordered’ peasant uprising in Hunan and adjacent provinces with the goal of taking power in these regions. Mao wholeheartedly agreed with the Russian scheme, and, in the emergency party meeting, made a statement, which was to acquire international fame: “power comes out of the barrel of the gun.” The ‘Autumn Harvest Uprising’ in Hunan, which, according to the official Communist party version, was a peasant uprising led by Chairman Mao, was thus not an authentic peasant uprising, orchestrated as it was by the Russians. Over the next several months Mao manoeuvred to take control of the ‘Red Army’ and set his base in the outlaw ‘Bandit’ country, in the Jinggang Mountain range, so called because it was out of reach of the authorities because of difficult terrain and was mostly controlled by outlaws. From here Mao organized looting sorties into neighbouring counties, grandly called ‘du tu-hao’, literally ‘smash landed tyrants’. The term ‘rich’ was very relative and ‘smash’ covered a range of activities from robbery to ransom to killings. At this stage Mao requested the CPP mandate as the supreme of the Red Army. The request reached Stalin in the middle of CPP’s sixth Congress, which, in keeping with the Communist obsession with secrecy, was taking place in secret just outside Moscow. Mao fitted Stalin’s bill: he had a base and an army at his disposal. Stalin, the old bank robber, probably saw his younger self in Mao: he (Mao), according to Stalin, was “insubordinate but a winner”. All of Mao’s demands were met. When fifteen months later Mao left the ‘Outlaw’ land—Chiang Kai-shek, having brought most of China under his control, setting his capital in Nanjing, had turned his attention to the Communists and was preparing to attack Mao’s base—he left behind a trail of destruction. A party inspector wrote to Shanghai: “Before the Red Army came. . . there was quite an atmosphere of peaceful and happy existence. . . since the Red army came, things were totally changed.  . . because after great destruction no attention was paid to construction the countryside is totally bankrupt and collapsing by the day.”

Mao then set his base in the province of Jiangxi, near Hunan. The local Reds revolted and, not for the first time, Mao resorted to terror, ordering public executions, to achieve his ends. Around this time Stalin gave him the ultimate promotion and declared him the head of the future state. Mao then embarked upon large scale purge, the first of the many he carried out in his bloody reign, getting rid of all those who opposed him, labelling them ‘Anti-Bolshevik’. A circular sent by the local Reds to Shanghai, the headquarters of the CPP, describes Mao’s style of functioning that changed not a jot over the next few decades: “He is extremely devious, and sly, selfish, and full of megalomania. To his comrades, he orders them around, frightens them with charges of crimes, and victimises them. He rarely holds discussions on party matters. . . Whenever he expresses a view everyone must agree, otherwise he uses the party organization to clamp down on you, or invents some trumped-up theories to make life absolutely dreadful for you. . . . Mao always uses political accusations to strike at his comrades. To sum up. . . not only he is not a revolutionary leader, he is not a. . . Bolshevik.”

Chiang Kai-shek, in the meanwhile, was slowly strangulating Mao’s new base, and was preparing to attack Jiangxi when a stroke of luck, yet again, saved Mao: Japan invaded Manchuria and occupied its many cities, including the capital Shenyang. Chiang suspended his plan of ‘annihilating the Communists’ and appealed for a United Front against a common enemy, an offer Mao wasted no time in rejecting—for him the Nationalists and not the Japanese were the real enemies. When Chaing pulled out his troops to fight the Japanese, the Reds, like vultures, attacked and recovered the lost territory.

The most startling part of Chang and Halliday’s discovery, made possible no doubt after the secret Soviet archives and files were made available to public after 1994, is the sustained role Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin to be more precise, played in fomenting Communism in China. Communist Party of China and its leadership were, for decades, parasites of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Without the generous help of the Soviets—involving astronomical sums of money and weapons— which continued well into the first decade of Mao’s rule, Chang and Halliday would have us believe, CPP would not have been able to survive. For years, the CPP and Mao did the bidding of the Russians who bank-rolled the Red army. Indeed, it was Stalin himself who singled out Mao as the leader of the Chinese communists. It is probable that the ‘Red Tsar’ saw in Mao’s drive, ruthlessness, and lust for power glimpses of himself, but there were other pressing reasons, which had to do with Stalin’s vision of expanding the Soviet empire into China—he had decided to invade Manchuria and wanted the CPP to create diversionary military pressure on the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek— as well as his desire to have a leader in China who had no connection with his bete noire, Trotsky, whom he had just exiled, behind Stalin’s decision. Mao, of course, was aware of his (and CPP’s) utility and milked the Russians relentlessly, promoting, on the sly, at the same time his agenda of personal aggrandizement. And he was prepared to sacrifice the sovereignty of China in order to achieve his goals. In 1937 Japan, whom Stalin had publicly identified as the principle menace, attacked and occupied Northern China. This posed a very real threat to Russia as Tokiyo’s huge armies were now in a position to turn North and attack Russia anywhere along a border thousands of kilometre long. With newly available evidence Chang and Halliday show that Stalin activated a ‘sleeper’ in Chiang’s army and triggered an all out war between China and Japan, which the Japanese, apparently, were not aiming for at this stage, and which Chiang wanted to avoid as he wanted to concentrate his forces on wiping out Communists. Stalin’s aim was primarily to get Japan entrenched in a war involving large parts of China. When an all out war broke out, Stalin moved with alacrity, signed a non-aggression pact with Chiang and supplied him with money and weapons, the aim of which was to sustain the war and delay, if not completely neutralize, the threat Japan posed for Russia. Mao reaped immediate benefits when all out war broke out between China and Japan: Chiang was forced to accede to the Communists’ principle demand—that the Red army could keep its autonomy. The CPP were allowed to open offices in key cities and publish its own papers. This was the beginning of the end of Chiang’s grip over China. Mao treated the war not as a conflict in which all Chinese fought together, irrespective of their political and ideological differences against an external aggressor, but as an opportunity to drive further his own agenda. And he was prepared to be belligerent and deviate from the command of his Soviet masters. Stalin wanted a united China to fight against the Japanese and bog them down. Mao repeatedly found ways to sabotage Stalin’s command that the CPP should join hands with Chiang. His ploy was to use the war as an opportunity to expand his own base while Chiang, with the help of the Russians, fought the Japanese and got weakened in the process. The war, for Mao, was an opportunity to destroy Chaing, which he was incapable of doing himself. At the same time he knew very well that he had no capacity (or strategy, even) to drive the Japanese out of China. For this he depended on the Russians, as he knew that Stalin would never allow the Japanese conquer China, as the Japanese would pose, with the whole of China under their control, even greater threat to the Russians. This is exactly what happened. The Sino-Japanese war lasted eight years, cost 20 millions Chinese lives and weakened Chiang enormously, both politically and militarily. Within five years of the war ending Communists drove Chiang out and Mao had achieved his ambition. Years later he remarked to his inner circle that he had always regarded the war as a three-way affair: “Chiang, Japan and us.”

The picture of Mao that emerges is, to say the least, not endearing. Devoid of emotions such as empathy and affection he treated those near him, including his wives children and brothers appallingly. Yang Kai-hui, the daughter of Mao’s erstwhile teacher, became his second wife. The two married in 1920, and within months Mao was having an affair with her cousin. Kai-hui, a remarkable woman (judging from the diaries she left behind), a feminist who wrote an essay on women’s right, nevertheless remained faithful to Mao. She wrote: “Anyone who has no physical handicap must have two attributes. One is the sex drive, and the other is the emotional need for love. My attitude was to let him [Mao] be, and let it be.” Incredible as it may seem she must have been madly in love with him. Mao had three sons from his second marriage. Beyond giving his first son a grandiose name, An-ying, meaning ‘an outstanding person’, Mao did not involve himself in any way, as, indeed, he did not in respect of any of his other children from future wives, in their upbringing. Seven years later he left Yang Kai-hui for Gui-yuan, who became his wife number three. Three years after the abandonment, Mao’s political machinations brought tragedy to Kai-hui. By this time Chiang Kai-shek had formed the Nationalistic government, based in Nanjing, with a nominal authority over China. Mao, who had formed a rag-tag Red Army, all of whose ammunition came from Stalin, led siege to Changsha, where Kai-hui was still living with their three children. The siege was unsuccessful; the fiercely anti-Communist governor of Changsha arrested Kai-hui and offered her a deal: her freedom if she made a public announcement divorcing and denouncing Mao. Kai-hui, whom Mao, in the previous three years since leaving her and their three young children, had not written so much as a letter, refused, and was executed by a firing squad. Mao could easily have saved her during his assault on and retreat from Changsha, as her house was on his route to the city where he stayed for three weeks. He did nothing to extricate her and their children. Tse-min, Mao’s younger brother, arranged for the three children to travel to Shanghai where they entered a secret CPP kindergarten. Mao took no interest in what happened to them. Gui-yuan, Mao’s third wife, fared no better. She worked for Mao as his interpreter after he decided to make the ‘bandit country’, south of Jinggang Mountain range on which Chiang Kai-shek had no control, as his base. Mao did not know, and never bothered to learn, the local dialect. The beautiful Gui-yuan, with ‘large eyes, high cheekbones, and an almond-shaped face’ fancied Tse-tan, Mao’s ‘handsome and lively’ youngest brother, but married Mao for ‘political protection’. As events in subsequent years showed, she was mistaken in this belief. Gui-yuan had several pregnancies during the ten years she and Mao were together. She had to leave most of her children behind as Mao fled from Chiang’s army. The second of these was a boy named Little Mao whom she entrusted to the care of her sister who was married to Mao’s brother, Tse-tan, whom Mao had ordered to stay behind and defend the Red territory, which, as he himself knew  to be a hopeless task (that’s why he fled). Mao had essentially condemned his own brother and son to a certain death. Soon Nationalists took the Red territory, and Tse-tan moved Little Mao secretly. However Tse-tan was killed in the battle in 1935 before he could tell his wife where he had moved Little Mao. For years, long after she had ceased to be his wife, Gui-Yuan searched for Little Mao. In the 1950s a young man was found who Gui-yuan was convinced was Little Mao. However another Red Army widow identified him as her missing son. Mao, who had complete control of China, having driven out Chiang Kai-shake in 1949 and declaring China a Communist state, refused to intervene; indeed he never showed any interest in what might have happened to his own flesh and blood. Gui-yuan was Mao’s companion, albeit a reluctant one—she had become disillusioned within a year of their marriage, and had tried various ways to separate, all of which were thwarted by Mao—during the Long March. During the Long March Gui-yuan gave birth to their fourth child, a daughter, whom, like her other children, she was forced to leave behind with a family as Mao fled southwards. Mao’s response, when Gui-yuan informed him of what she had had to do was: “You were right, we had to do this.” Not only did he show indifference to Gui-Yuan’s plight, Mao also cracked jokes about her painful pregnancies with other women, saying giving birth for her [Gui-yuan] was as easy as dropping an egg. Gui-yuan was to have two more children with Mao. By this time the marriage, for all practical purposes, was over, and Mao was openly sleeping with other women. This, however, did not stop him from repeatedly impregnating Gui-yuan. Their fifth child was a girl, Chiao-Chiao, the only one to survive to adulthood. When, a year later, she fell pregnant for the sixth time, Gui-yuan plunged into depression. Mao arranged for her to go to Russia, in 1937, in the middle of Stalin’s purge, ostensibly to get rid of painful shrapnel lodged in her body from the time of the Long March. In Moscow, in the middle of a harsh winter, Gui-yuan gave birth to their sixth child, a boy whom she named Lyova and who died (without Mao ever having laid his eyes on him) six months later of pneumonia. Mao, who by this time had married for the fourth time, to Jiang Quing, the notorious ‘Madam Mao’, sent her a letter declaring the dissolution of their marriage in one sentence: “From now on we are only comrades.” Mao specifically prohibited Gui-yuan’s return to China. Their daughter, Chaio-Chiao, lived full-time in the elite’s nursery, as Mao never came to see her. A grown up Chiao-Chiao remarked that in those days she was an orphan who was not exactly an orphan. At the age of four Chiao-Chioa was sent to Russia to live with her mother, who, by this time, was beginning to lose her grip on reality. Young Chiao-Chiao suffered the brunt of her mother’s increasingly unpredictable behaviour and irrational rages. Soon Gui-yuan was ‘committed’ to an asylum in Moscow and Chiao-Chiao became an orphan yet again. Mao met Gui-yuan only once more in their lives, in 1959. By this time both Gui-yuan and Chiao-Chioa had returned to China, and Mao occasionally allowed his daughter to see him. He was seized with a whim to see Gui-yuan, who, he was warned by their daughter, was in a fragile state of mind and could well ‘collapse mentally if she got too excited.’  After they met briefly Mao ‘promised’ to see Gui-yuan again ‘tomorrow’. However, the next day, Gui-yuan was forcibly taken away on Mao’ orders and suffered a severe relapse of her mental condition. Jiang Quing, Mao’s fourth and last wife, remained married to him for the remainder of his life, albeit only in name. She became notorious as the leader of what Mao referred to as the ‘Gang of four’ during the Cultural Revolution. When arrested after Mao’s death for her crimes during the cultural revolution Jiang Quing said, “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. Whoever Chairman Mao asked me to bite, I bit.” Madam Mao was most probably telling the truth—it was Mao, and Mao alone, who unleashed the Cultural Revolution; Madam Mao simply did his bidding—and her comment summarises the nature of their relationship. Chang and Halliday suggest that an increasingly insecure, politically weak, and moribund Mao bartered ‘Mme Mao’ and the others in the Gang to his would be successors for his own safety, telling them they could do what they wished to her after he died

Chang and Halliday next go about destroying the myth (as they see it) surrounding Mao’s Long March on which the historical  legitimacy of the communist rule in China rests. Did Mao and his comrades showed incredible courage and inventiveness in escaping the Nationalist army that was threatening to close in on them? No, say Chang and Halliday. Mao was allowed to escape by the Chiang (no doubt an error of judgement by the generalissimo for which he paid a few years later). Chaing’s control on the Southwestern province was very shaky at this time and he was not keen on antagonizing the warlords who controlled the region. The Long March of the communist was in fact facilitated by the Nationalist. When the warlords, unsettled by the entry of the Reds into their province, appealed to Chiang for help, the Nationalists, at the invitation of the warlords, entered the region to drive the communists out. Mao did not even walk through the Long March. Years later he remarked (as per Chuang & Halliday):  “On the march, I was lying in a litter. So what did I do? I read. I read a lot.”

Chang and Halliday are reluctant to see anything that Mao did that was not out of his desire of personal aggrandizement. Thus, when Mao, in 1927, facing political crossroads, decided to stay with the Communists (and in effect put his life at risk, as Chiang had begun to kill Communists), it was not because he had the courage of conviction but because he had developed a taste for brutality in Hunan which he was loath to give up by joining the Natioanlists. He used the Korean War essentially as an opportunity to kill the soldiers belonging formerly to the Nationalist army. Some of it is familiar grounds. Most (at least in the West) now acknowledge that Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ was an unmitigated disaster for the Chinese population and millions perished. Chang and Halliday quote Mao instructing the officials to “educate” the starving peasants that they eat less. The State, Mao advised, should try its hardest to prevent peasants eating too much. At another time Mao is supposed to have remarked that while working on all of his projects “half of China may well have to die.” Chilling words.

Mao, according to the biography, was utterly ruthless and unforgiving towards those who he felt threatened his control over the CPP and China. The biography is awash with examples of political rivals, several —so Chang and Halliday would have the readers belive—more moralistic and worthy than Mao, who were murdered by Mao. Even those who stayed loyal to him, such as his long serving prime minister, Zhou Enlie. In the 1970s when Zhou was suffering from cancer, Mao blocked the treatment that might have prolonged Zhou’s life. Zhou himself is portrayed as Mao’s slavish lackey and not the erudite world leader and diplomat he was known to be in his life time.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Chang and Halliday have spared no effort to portray the founder of the communist China as a murdering, machinating, power-hungry psychopath who had absolutely no regard for human life and spent most of his long, wicked life heaping misery on the benighted populace of the country he ruled for more than twenty-five years. He was not a particularly impressive orator, nor did he have the charisma of some of the other dictators of the twentieth century whom he matched, probably even surpassed in craziness. He was vicious; he had low-level cunning; he utterly lacked empathy; and was prepared to go to any length to stay in power. That’s what Chang and Halliday would like their readers to believe.

Is it true, though? There seems something inherently imbalanced about this humongous biography. Chang is of course the author of Wild Swan, a chronicle of the three generation of her family that suffered under Mao’s rule. Mao: the Unknown Story seems to have been written out of an intense revulsion, bordering on hatred, for its subject. Almost every chapter of the biography is devoted to demolishing some or the other ‘myths’ related to Mao. If you hold the view that historical biographies should have an element of neutrality then Mao: the Unknown Story might rankle. That is as may be. It might be argued that it is difficult to write a neutral biography of someone whose list of crimes runs longer than the treaty of Versailles.  

The point the reader might wish to satisfy himself about is: how well researched is the biography? Are the sources quoted authentic? This question becomes all the more important if the biography is making startling claims—as this one does—about its subject. If you are going to make startling revelations about the treasured recent  history of a country that is  viewed by many as the real superpower, such as the Long March, you’d better back it up with bulletproof evidence. I of course lack the expertise to critically analyse the sources quoted by Chang and Halliday. It has to be said, though, that on the face of it the list is impressive. The biography was allegedly in the making for more than ten years. Chang and Halliday painstakingly interviewed hundreds of subjects in more than 30 countries. Some of the interviewees are well known personalities such as former US presidents, a former African dictator etc. But there are many others who, even to my unprofessional eye, seem difficult to check. The same goes for at least some of the sources quoted by Chang and Halliday, which apparently cannot be verified and therefore must be considered as highly speculative. One of the more detailed criticisms of the methodological issues of the biography can be found here.

Mao Tse Tung—who led a long and remarkable life and who undeniably came to exert influence not only on the country he ruled but also the world— may well have been the brutal and sadistic monster Chang and Halliday accuse him of being, but when you come to the end of this long and very readable biography, you may be excused if you have hesitation in sharing the conviction of its authors.