Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, is a peculiar novel about a young man, Ku Dongliang, who lives on a riverboat with his father, a former government official whose “lifestyle” problems—affairs—raise rancor that separates him from his wife, forcing his teenage son to choose a life on land or water. The novel takes place during the Cultural Revolution, and Su Tong incorporates lots of references to propaganda and politics, usually pairing them with absurdity: another source of problems for Ku Dongliang’s father, for example, is that he thinks he’s the descendant of a revolutionary martyr but he lacks the proper fish-shaped birthmark on his butt to prove it.
The Boat to Redemption is one of the first novels—perhaps even the first novel?—I’ve read that was translated from the Chinese, so I was grateful to find parallels to Russian fiction that also uses absurd angles to portray the strange realities of life and language under authoritarian governments. Su Tong draws sharp contrasts between the public and the private, combining lots of below-the-waist humor with ridiculous regulations, such as forcing riverboat workers to spend their time on shore with escorts. My favorite line in the book is a slogan in a public men’s restroom. This is surely wisdom to remember: “One small step closer to the urinal is a great leap for civilization.” Speaking of public bathrooms, Ku Dongliang realizes he’s growing up when he notices that the walls in the men’s room seem shorter.
Su Tong also shows Ku Dongliang’s growth through his obsession with a younger girl, Huixian, who lives on the riverboat for several years after her mother disappears. After Huixian leaves the boat to play the role of a revolutionary in political events, Ku Dongliang keeps track of her so closely that “stalking” might be an appropriate word. This portion of the book is especially humorous and sad, again emphasizing differences between private and collective, river and shore. Su Tong also uses lots of nicknames for characters (“Rotten Rapeseed” particularly stood out) and incorporates what sound like Chinese proverbs into their speech. I’m sure I missed out on a boatload of cultural references.
The Boat to Redemption won the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2011. For better or worse, the version of the book that Goldblatt translated and that was published in the U.K. by Doubleday and just appeared in the U.S. from Overlook is apparently not the final draft of the book that was published in Chinese. And, as often happens with translations, the title was changed: evidently a more direct translation of the title would have been River, Shore. I can’t help but agree with the blog Musings of a Literary Dilettante, which explains the situation, that the book we read doesn’t feel as “polished” as it might or should—I thought the book lacked transitions and balance even before I learned about the later draft—and that the original, less zingy title would have fit the book better. None of this should be taken in any way as a criticism of Howard Goldblatt’s translation, which I think reads very well, capturing/creating a distinct narrative voice.
Would I recommend The Boat to Redemption, even if it’s not the final draft? Yes, I would, if you enjoy novels that combine coming of age, irreverence, and the absurdity of life in an authoritarian country. I never considered abandoning the book, though I did sometimes grow a bit impatient with Dongliang’s running and obsessions. Even in its unperfected form, The Boat to Redemption brings out the pain and odd humor of growing up in a place where logic and privacy are lacking. And, finally, let’s be honest: some writers’ early drafts are a lot better than others’ final drafts.
Bonus: Here’s an article from yesterday’s New York Times, about brand names in China. Names like “Precious Horse” (BMW) and “Happiness Power” (“Coca-Cola”) are yet more evidence that I’m sure I missed lots of references in The Boat to Redemption because of my cluelessness about Chinese culture.
Up Next: Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, then Elias Khoury’s White Masks. And maybe news from this week’s American Literary Translators Association conference, we’ll see!
Disclosure: Standard disclosures; I received a review copy of The Boat to Redemption from Overlook Press, a publisher that I always enjoy talking with.