Hunger Trilogy--Wang Ruowang

This must be in the running for the book with the most unpromising title neither of the two words taken separately can be considered auspicious for launching into reading.  Hunger, um, no, I prefer feast, as in Babbette's, or for that matter Belshazzar's.  Trilogy--not only am I going to read about and perhaps be hungry myself, I'm going to have to go on and on and on.

First, let me prepare you--the shocking reality is that this trilogy--the entire three pieces just barely reaches a short novel length.  And secondly, it is really good reading.  It is good reading for at least two reasons: (1) it is intrinsically interesting and (2) it is written by an author who is a member of  an underrepresented group among Chinese writers.

Wang Ruowang  is (or is it was at this point in time?  I cannot say) a member of the Chinese Communist Party.  He was a member long enough that the first section of this trilogy takes place during the time of the guomindang--during which time he was placed in a prison as a rebel.  Thus, we meet the young hero of this book, who can be taken as a stand-in for the author (at least according to the introduction) at the age of sixteen. In this segment, Wang is imprisoned with a number of other communist rebels in a prison in which the food is inadequate.  He describes in detail how the prisoners stage a hunger strike for better food as well as other precious commodities.  The outcome of the strike, I leave to you, the reader to discover--but such as it is, you know that our intrepid hero survives to enter episode 2.

The second part of this trilogy takes place during the Japanese invasion of China.  The communist forces and the guomindang are working together to fight the common enemy.  Wang and his platoon are ordered to a distant wood, there to regather with the dispersed forces.  In the course of the march, they cross a vast desert-like wasteland and once again are exposed to extreme hunger and forced to resort to the expedients nature provides to relieve that hunger.

The final episode takes place in 1969 and Wang finds himself once again in prison.  The cause this time is somewhat less certain.  He is imprisoned with a famous doctor whose crime against the state was "revealing state secrets"--a method of using acupuncture in place of or as a supplement to anesthesia.  Once again, the conditions rival that of the first prison.  One significant prisoner develops hepatitis, another attempts crimes against the state by trying to take his own life.

Each of these vignettes limns a different state and cause of hunger, and it also outlines the difficulties that accompany living in a regime that is trying to define itself--a regime that is somewhere west of the China ruled by an Emperor.  The Emperor, we are given to understand, still exists, but is called by various names at various times. 

The book is not written as an indictment of China or the Communist Chinese government.  It is written by one sympathetic with the aims of that government--particularly the articulated aim of easing the suffering of those most oppressed.  But time and again, Wang runs up against the corruption of power that undermines all of these aims, no matter how noble.

Because of the political views of the author, this opened a new image of China for me.  While the regime was oppressive and was doing wrong, Wang argues that the regime is those in power and not every communist in his daily walk.  Of course, if one pauses to consider the matter, that is a conclusion one might arrive at oneself if prejudices are pushed to the side.  But the accomplishment of this book is that Mr. Ruowang helps us to come to terms with that reality.  He helps us to understand the hunger of the Chinese people at different times during their existence.  And, he helps us to understand that sometimes hunger strengthens us to endure more and sometimes it kills us.

Recommended ****1/2

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