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Friday, August 10, 2012 12:00 PM
As audacious artistic ventures go, Pauline Chen’s The Red Chamber might rank alongside Gus Van Sant’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, or any cover version of a Beatles song. With her first novel for adults, the Chinese-American writer, whose degrees from Harvard, Yale Law School and Princeton include a doctorate in Chinese literature, has played on elements of a venerated Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber.
According to Chen’s author’s note, the text from which she drew her inspiration is widely considered the most important of the Chinese literary tradition. But where that novel, with its 2,500 pages and 400 characters, is hostile territory for the casual or less confident reader, The Red Chamber is as welcoming and appealing as its title suggests.
In a still-lengthy – at nearly 500 pages – but taut narrative, Chen has opted for “a reimagining of the inner lives and motivations of the three major female characters” in the Chinese work. The story opens with one of these women, Lin Daiyu, whose father is an official in Suzhou. On the death of her mother, Jia Min, Daiyu is left to fulfill her wishes by traveling north to Beijing to meet the family from which Min was long estranged.
As an awkward outsider, unfamiliar with the customs and unwritten rules of the household, Daiyu becomes the focus of her resentful grandmother’s pent-up rage at Min’s departure and early death, which she attributes to the southern climate.
The young woman also finds love, but of the star-crossed variety, and indeed The Red Chamber features the deep-seated familial dysfunction of Shakespearean tragedy, along with Henry James’ preoccupation with sullied innocence and the guise of propriety. Can the mutual passion of Daiyu and Jia Baoyu, her cousin and the handsome, dissolute heir of his wealthy Jia family, ever be brought into the open? That will depend on another of the three female players, the repressed and colourless Baochai, to whom Baoyu is betrothed.
Meanwhile, Wang Xifeng, the wife of another cousin to Baoyu, brutish philanderer Jia Lian, is coming up hard against the status-driven system of patronage and service within which the family exists. As an in-law her rank is already middling, and her
ailure to bear a child pushes her further down the pecking order and towards her ultimate humiliation – Lian’s taking of her maid as a fertile concubine. (Such women, used to provide whatever a man’s wife cannot, are referred to disdainfully as having been ‘born in the wrong bed’, though they are hardly devoid of power.)
Deference and silence are demanded, but as selfish as Chen’s men can be, the women of The Red Chamber never suffer so much as at the hands of other women. One character, musing ruefully over the unfortunate lot of her sex, cites the Chinese proverb, “A virtuous woman is an uneducated woman.”
Such cloisters demand to be blown apart, and Chen satisfies the urge for action with an external conspiracy that neatly mirrors those of the household and brings her story to an emphatic, if slightly unwieldy, conclusion.
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