I’ll ramble a bit, if you don’t mind.
I’ve been looking for Tracks in the Snowy Forest for a while, now, without any luck.
I read a lot about it, summaries, criticism… but I still miss the real thing.
The book, written by Chinese author Qu Bo and published in 1957, was apparently published in English in 1962 – and never reprinted1. Alas, I can’t read Chinese.
The book – a thick affair over 500 pages long – is a historical novel. Or maybe not.
Based on true fact – to wit, the operations of a small unit of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army against warlords and bandit chieftains in North-Eastern China in 1946-1947 – it is nonetheless a novel, a work of fiction, and it was published ten years after the events. The author Qu Bo, took part in that PLA campaign, and the story is therefore based on his first-hand experiences.
Does it count as historical fiction?
Or is it something else – fictionalized autobiography?
I don’t know.
One of the few details I’ve been able to track about the story makes the classification – to me – even trickier: in the book, the pulpiest, most over-the-top character happens to be a real person, and his portrayal is historically accurate; at the same time, the most straightforward and “believable” character is completely imaginary, totally made up, the product of invention.
I like that.
The 1957 book was hugely popular – the original Chinese text selling almost two million copies before the Cultural Revolution.
And right during the Cultural Revolution, one of the episodes in the book became the basis of a stage drama – in the stile of Chinese Opera, and called Taking of Tiger Mountain by Strategy2.
The drama required a few “rewrites”, to conform to the straitlaced, conformist and ultimately puritan views of the Cultural Revolution3.
For instance, the novel includes a love story – and it was cut because it was considered “too individualistic”4.
Another curious detail – in the Tiger Mountain episode as narrated in the book, the main character is riding to a warlord’s fortress, where he will pretend to be a bandit, to join the ranks of the bad guys.
As he rides, he sings dirty songs, to get in the part.
In the rewrite, he rides and sings patriotic songs… because, he’s a patriot, of course.
The opera was later turned in to a movie, after further cuts and rewrites – and the singing during theride was cut altogether. Serious revolutionaries don’t sing.
What I find curious, and interesting (and entertaining, if you will), is the process of departure from reality through writing and rewriting:
- Fact – 1946: a handful of soldiers faces a force of hundreds of bandits. The soldiers do their part, and the bandits are eliminated. On to the next mission. War is hell.
- The novel – 1957: in 1946, 30 men face 1000 ruthless cutthroats and through guile, self-sacrifice and plain old grit, they triumph, and live to fight another day.
- The opera – 1964: in 1946, 30 brave patriots face a horde of bandits, counter-revolutionaries and landlords[^5], and they triumph because they are right.
- The movie – 1969: in 1946, half a dozen Heroes of the Revolution defeat a grotesque horde of freaks (and landlords), because they are following the rules set by the Great Revolutionary Leader…
It’s pretty clear that we start with historical fact, and through historical fiction, we come to history-free historical fiction… that is, fiction plain and simple. Or if you prefer, with each rewrite we are getting closer to fantasy – if by fantasy we mean the literature of the impossible – and deep into the field of propaganda.
Because propaganda is usually fantasy, isn’t it?
Interestingly enough, what causes the shift into fantasy is the addition of a “because…”, of an explanation of why things went in a certain way that calls for some superior and abstract power.
I find this interesting.
And this explains, by the way, why I’d love to read the original book – not just because it’s a big fat blockbuster of an adventure novel detailing an obscure corner of Oriental history… but because it is historical.
My hunt continues.
I’ll keep you posted.
- just as I was about to post this piece, I stumbled on a second-hand copy of a 1978 hardback, which friendly amazon is willing to let me have for 45 bucks. ↩
- you were warned, I said I’d do a number of posts as a consequence of finally viewing that movie. ↩
- curious, if you will, considering that former actress and fourth Mrs. Mao Zedong, Jiang Qing, had been a rather racy character in her pre-revolutionary days. ↩
- try and imagine a non-individualistic love story, go on, I dare you… ↩