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The Statesman

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The Statesman

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    The Crossing

    Da Chen’s ‘Sounds of the River’, Stony Brook’s 2009 first-year reading selection, chronicles the tale of the author’s student days in the prestigious Beijing Language Institute, providing a personal view of a China resuscitated from the spell of the Cultural Revolution.

    Mao Zedong is still revered by some authority figures, while others, like Da’s friend Abdullah, are daring and irreverent enough to take a shirtless picture with his likeness. Indeed, Da’s generation ushers in a new era when wizened grownups lament that respect for elders is no longer inculcated in disaffected youths. Ultimately, the mellifluous memoir is as much a journey to a foreign world of profligate city slickers as it is an introspective odyssey.

    Many leitmotifs inform the narrative, but perhaps the most prominent one is the metamorphosis of one’s identity. Many things factor into the formation of a composite character, such as: the influence of family, friends, and foreigners, the ephemeral and the permanent, the true and the false. Da Chen learns early on that one must make allowances for the vicissitudes of life.

    In anticipation of his departure from home, he had practiced wiping histrionic tears from his eyes in farewell to his parents. But this is not what happens on the actual day. He doesn’t have a vision of his parents becoming diminutive dolls, with each blast of steam, on the horizon. When Da first sees the behemoth Beijing-Fujian Express, it seems like an anachronism, this breathing locomotive that comes rushing into his little provincial town.

    Or, equally plausible, perhaps it is the farming boy, who is out of place ‘- an oddity in a crowd of people assimilated with the modern world. The train comes to signify the theme of social change, of the pastoral diaspora to urban cities.

    No matter Da’s bucolic-outsider status, from the outset, he proves himself to be an extraordinarily hard-working student. Another immutable quality is his pride, not in himself, but in his ancestors and heritage.

    Da Chen comes from a line of scholars, but that fact alone, he gleans, does not guarantee his academic prowess. He knows that there is no magical formula for success, and he never takes a chance, not even when numerous fortunes portend an enviable future, by slacking off.

    Furthermore, he refuses to let other people deride him on the basis of his background, and is rightly outraged by the undeserved attention paid to the progeny of blueblood parents ‘- attention that could send a wealthy child to America or land him a cushy job. And the worst part is that Da, for all his abhorrence of venality and gross fealty, is helpless to do anything about it.

    Da Chen’s mandarin prose poetically encapsulates his feelings towards his teachers, peers, family and friends. His masterly evocation of the past is a testament to both his talent as a writer and his diligence to master the English language.

    At times, however, the dialogue between his friends and him smacks of contrivance ‘- almost too lyrical to pass for the colloquial conversation that occurs between friends or strained by an overdose of comity.

    Also, the fleeting descriptions of Da’s encounters with other students seem to intimate that the few times he mingles with his peers are the outcomes of totally fortuitous events, such as the playing of his Chinese flute enticing (or rather, summoning) a foreigner.
    While many of the university’s professors are myopic about the concept of interacting with strangers from strange lands, Da becomes an outlier of this group-think mentality, forsaking his belief in the dominating social construct as if it was a burdensome overcoat.

    Where his teachers see a parlous influence, Da lionizes a fascinating specimen of refined culture, taste, and values. Secretly, he scorns the risible shibboleth that all foreigners are to be avoided. Perhaps this is one of his subtle ways of rebelling against those proponents of the social hierarchy, but his admiration of foreigners most likely stems from a desire to live the American Dream, indelibly incarnated by his friend Bob.
    Another minor drawback of ‘Sounds of the River’ is Da’s heavy reliance on alliterations and adjectives. A laconic list of the ingredients in a dish of messy noodles, for instance, is certainly more apposite than Da’s list that describes each ingredient separately (in this case, he sacrifices authenticity for artistry, for the palate doesn’t distinguish amongst different components, but appreciates a sapid dish for its overall taste).

    Also, Da’s commentary, at certain points, serves only to stifle the flow of the narrative rather than evince his tenets, rendering the book less copacetic than it otherwise might have been.

    For instance, early on, Da alludes to his future career path: ‘The interpreter pulled out a business card and gave me a snappy handshake before he disappeared into the throng. In four years I would have my own cards and be able to drop names like he did’ (Chen 12). Though the last sentence does highlight the theme of the present as an illimitable process of repetition, would it not have been better to leave it out, letting the reader ponder the nuanced significance of the cards of fate?

    The story Da has to tell is redolent of the bildungsroman; we witness him grow piecemeal from a na’iuml;f into a cerebral and supremely ambitious young man. In retrospect, he provides a spate of vivid recollections both within the classroom and without. Where hedonists slack off, peruse dirty magazines or go on louche excursions, Da always has his head in a book, rolling words off his tongue like a waterfall spouting liquid into a foamy phenomenon.

    For him, books are apertures into other worlds; disinterred conduits to Jack London’s Yukon Territory or Shakespeare’s Venice. Comrade Chen is uniquely fueled by his love of the English language, which eclipses the pressure to perform at his absolute best. Furthermore, his descriptions of his familial gatherings are not overly maudlin or saccharine. It is clear to see how proud everyone is of Chen’s successes ‘- first of being accepted to Beijing Language Institute, then graduating on top of his class, and eventually venturing to America all on his own.

    One truly feels, at the end of the book, that any ‘lucky breaks’ Da got were well-deserved and if anything, that he should have been rewarded more serendipitous opportunities. As the saying goes, however, a man creates his own luck, of which, amidst a land of food rations and limited shower times, Da Chen, at last, had a surfeit.

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