Page 45 Review by Stephen
"If your soul achieves peace, you can attain your goals."
Belle Yang was born on Taiwan in 1960 where her father and mother were teaching. He named her Xuan which means "Forget Sorrow", and he did so because it was nothing short of a miracle that he made it from China to Taiwan alive: there was an awful lot of sorrow to forget.
As the subtitle suggests, this is only autobiography in the same sense as MAUS, for it's more about her father's story than Yang's. As the book opens Belle is living with her parents in Carmel, California, sheltering from an abusive ex-boyfriend-turned-stalker, and she's at constant loggerheads with her father. Yang isn't entirely safe where she is, either. Her ex knows where they live, he's gone through their bins before and when I say 'abusive' and 'stalker' I mean that he shot up the offices of a lawyer who'd befriended her, at which point, fearing for their lives, almost all their friends deserted them. From graduating at the top of her class Belle Yang's life was obliterated: she lost her car, she lost her path, she lost everything. However, it's at this point that Belle takes more than a passing interest in her family's history so, as their cat Chairman Mao listens in, her father Baba begins to expound. And slowly, ever so slowly as Belle becomes inspired to transcribe this ancestral tale, they begin to bond until finally, aged 30, Belle Yang starts to live up to her name, achieve her own peace and so attain her goals.
It's the most extraordinary revelation to me, this history, for it's another of those periods I've been hazy on, full of traditions new to me. The art is representational in a style completely different to PERSEPOLIS with landscapes, I assume, harking back to a Chinese tradition (I'm not going to bluff that, I really don't know, but they feel so right for the story being told) and heads constantly cocked at delightful angles.
It begins with the Japanese invasion of China in 1931, after which they used Manchuria as a spring-board to attack China south of the Great Wall in 1937. But when in 1943 the Americans began bombing Shenyang city where two of Baba's uncles lived, they fled with their families to the countryside village of Xinmin, seat of power of their House of Yang, so reuniting Baba, his father, his three uncles and his grandfather for the first time in years. It's between Xinmin where Baba's grandfather held power, the neighbouring hillside Shantouzi which was the Yang clan's ancestral place of birth, and the sub-provincial city of Shenyang that the story oscillates. First, however, Baba's grandfather tells him of the House of Yang's origins as their ancestor Yang takes exception to a tax inspector, knocks him off with a hoe, then flees east to Shantouzi where they farmed long enough to lay claim to the land.
But the main focus here is on Baba's life in Xinmin with his taoist grandfather, sour old grandmother, a father who is abrasively strict outside of his meditations, his mother, his six brothers and his father's three brothers. His father is the oldest of these (and therefore First Uncle, if you like), and it's to him that his grandfather usually listens. Second Uncle is a carefree charmer and a bit of a dandy if it weren't for the fag burns in his clothes. His cross-eyed wife, however, is a cantankerous cow. Both refuse to control their children, Second Uncle's opinion being that they're born perfect spheres which would only be scratched if disciplined. Fourth Uncle is a musician with a passion for expensive instruments and a radio whose speaker he installs in grandfather's house along with a microphone to eavesdrop! It's Third Uncle, however, who's the real problem and it's his greedy machinations which will cause the ultimate downfall of the prosperous House Of Yang. And I mean its complete obliteration. It's barely credible, as I said, that Belle Yang's Baba made it alive to Taiwan. For yet to come is Third Uncle's acquisition of the Yang farmland, the looting of the Soviet Red Army under the guise of liberating the country, the rise of the Nationalists in the cities, the rise of the Communists/bandits in the countryside, then the clash of those two warring factions until the ultimate victory of the Communists which results in reprisals, destitution, and a famine that starves 30 million people. Almost every member of the family will die in dire circumstances, but the fate of the itinerant grandfather, rejected, truly beggars belief.
There's an interesting conversation in the middle of all this between Baba, returned to Xinmin on a visit from Shenyang, and his Second Uncle who's eschewed material things in favour of a low-maintenance lifestyle of selling watermelons when in season then writing poetry in winter, using pages torn from books as rolled spills with which to light the tobacco in his water pipe. This horrifies Baba.
"Why would you do such a thing?"
"Aiya. These are valuable books, but if you hold on to them, you're always worried about bookworms chewing on them. My nephew, a book of one hundred pages - you're lucking to read ten pages of truth in it. Think of it - ten - that's a damn good book. Most of the time, you get only a couple of useful sentences. The rest are simply wasted words."
He has a point, but if 10 pages of truth is a damn good book, what does it make a 250-page graphic novel with at least 220 pages going for it?
"I spent the Chinese New Year with my grandparents," writes Belle early on. "Their heads were frosted with memories."
Did I mention she can really turn a phrase?