IMAGINE THE AUDACITY of young Lulu Wang. Shortly after immigrating to the Netherlands from China, she writes a first novel in her newly learned language, Dutch. The novel not only wins a prize there, the Nonino International Prize for Literature, but goes on to become "an almost permanent" best seller. Two years later, she revises the novel and assists in producing a knockout English translation. This must be talent, because it can't be luck.
The Lily Theatre, set in China during and after the Cultural Revolution, reveals the story China has fought so hard to conceal. Lian Yang depicts Mao's China as seen through a child's eyes. Her father, a renowned physician, and her mother, a professor of history, have both been sentenced to "reeducation camp" to destroy the bourgeois habits of these two "undesirable human weeds" and teach them to honor the peasant by working in the fields. This setup leaves schools bereft of the best teachers, while also freeing up positions for Mao's automatons.
Lian lives in and attends one such mind-numbing school, euphemistically called a "Youth Accommodation Center." Her mother, however, isn't an intellectual for nothing. She figures out a scheme to get her daughter transferred into her work camp to be taught by the pros.
The people who wrote the books tutor Lian. Driven to desperate measures, she "decide[s] to read as much as possible to devour books in order to make [her]self a worthy interlocutor of these superintellects." Despite the threat of arrest for "counterrevolutionary thoughts," Lian pursues the true education denied to her peers.
Hence the Lily Theatre. Lian, anxious to discuss, rehearse and share her thoughts with others, holds practice sessions at a pond, speaking with frogs, cattails and pond lilies. Here she develops values and strength that almost all her peers lack. "Buddha has given you a brain," she is told; "put it to work." So she does.
For the most part, this story reads like a memoir. Details include intimate knowledge denied to the western world, such as working in a flour mill. Here noise prevents the overhearing of speech, allowing people to freely express historical fact and criticism of the Party. They work so hard that they are allowed an extra meal, one that does "not consist of ordinary prison swill but of food deemed good enough for Party officials," thus presenting an opportunity for the malnourished Lian. The horrors of this potentially dour story become richly animated as filtered through the child's innocence and humor.
In the translator's note Lulu Wang is reported as saying "I want to shock people with my language," and language forms a key element in the novel. She works the language of Mao's revolution in seamlessly. Characters don't speak of Mao. Instead they refer to him as "the Wisest Leader in the Universe," or "the Father, Mother, Lover, and Mistress All-Rolled-into-One" (his supporters are secretly dubbed "the Slobbering Worshipers of the Father, Mother, Lover, and Mistress All-Rolled-into-One.") When Lian feels happy she, a normal 11-year-old-child, hums a song she learns at school:
The Proletariat East Wind
Crushes the Capitalist West Wind
So--who is afraid of whom?
These juxtapositions come off hilariously because they appear without fanfare. The language of the revolution is so pervasive that it continually bursts through everyday speech.
Wang also shocks with language by allowing little Lian her own way with words. When she starts working at the flour mill she "ricocheted back and forth between storage area and the balloon, which, goddamn bastard son of an unwed mother, seemed to keep filling up faster and faster." Chinese colloquialisms, like "by Buddha," roll off her and her friends' tongues with ease.
After Lian comes home from the prison camp, the novel takes a drastic swerve. Lian becomes involved with her school's scapegoat, Kim Zhang. Ironically, Mao's classless society evidently exists in name only. Kim and her family endure the extreme hardships suffered by the lowest of the low. Lian's task becomes one of introducing equality to Kim, despite her station in life, which proves progressively more difficult as Kim excels.
Although the apocalyptic ending raises deus ex machina suspicions, it follows a certain internal logic, the logic of manipulation demonstrated by the Communist Party. The party took a mostly squalid and overpopulated nation ruled by one autocratic emperor after another and succeeded in only making the situation worse.
But as always, truth will out. The Lily Theater ranks on the top of the exposé heap, along with Ha Jin's Waiting and Anchee Min's The Red Azalea. Political powers will never extinguish the workings of the mind and the stories they will tell, by Buddha.