From Publishers Weekly
Maqiao, a fictitious rural village lost in the vitals of Mao's Communist empire, is to Han's magical novel what Macondo is to One Hundred Years of Solitude-a place in which the various brutalities and advances of contemporary history are transformed within the "fossil seams" of popular myth. Han adopts the rules of the dictionary to the rules of fiction, distributing mini-sagas of rural bandits, Daoist madmen and mixed up Maoists across the definitions of terms with special meaning in Maqiao. Han, narrator as well as author, is sent to Maqiao as part of a cadre of "Educated Youth" during the Cultural Revolution. A sharp, sophisticated observer, he narrates these folkloric tales from the vantage point of contemporary China, situating them within a richly informative historical and philosophical framework. Among the stories that deserve mention are those of Wanyu, the village's best singer and reputed Don Juan, who is discovered to lack the male "dragon"; of "poisonous" Yanzao, so called both because his aged mother has a reputation as a poisoner and because he is assigned to spread pesticides (and in so doing absorbs such a quantity of toxins that mosquitoes die upon contact with him); and of Tiexiang, the adulterous wife of Party Secretary Benyi, who takes up with Three Ears, so called because of the rudimentary third ear that grows under one of his armpits. Flawlessly translated by Lovell, this novel should not be missed by lovers of literature.
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The best novel of the year isn't that DeLillo-on-automatic-pilot thing that broke out, along with SARS, this spring; nor the smutty anti-Islamic screed by the super-annuated French juvenile delinquent; nor even Jane Smiley's excellent investigation of the unlikely souls of real estate agents. Rather, it is this 'dictionary' of the dialect of a fictitious village, Maqiao, lost in the squat hills of South China. San Francisco Chronicle Book Review [A] subtle and smashingly effective critique of the futility of totalitarian efforts to suppress language and thought -- and, more to the point, a stunningly imaginative and absorbing work of fiction. Kirkus Reviews [ A Dictionary of Maqiao] is a magnificent book, epic in its ambitions and sweep without any of the sentimental obfuscation on which that genre so often depends. The Village Voice [B]oth fascinating and masterful... Han paints a detailed, intriguing and amusing picture of what happens when Marxism collides with entrenched village beliefs, and how traditional China coexists with modernity. The book is filled with peculiar, beguiling, tragic characters and scenery so real you can touch it... This is an intelligent, amusing, clever, fascinating and well-written view of a China most of us never see, or don't recognize when we do. Asian Review of Books To enter [ A Dictionary of Maqiao]'s pages is to cross into a world of bandits and ghosts, where 'rude' means 'pretty,' and homosexuals are 'Red Flower Daddies' and people don't die, they 'scatter.' The New York Times Book Review Dictionary of Maqiao is a wonderful, many-layered novel written as a series of definitions which gains further depth from a good translation... Han Shaogong's novel [is] clever, sympathetic and amused... Julia Lovell's translation is an impressive achievement, a fine reflection of a complex book. Times Literary Supplement Han Shaogong's novel has won wide acclaim, and deservedly so; through his treatment of language, he not only vividly portrays village life in rural China, but also inspires readers to rethink what they are accustomed to taking for granted. Persimmon Sometimes humorous, but crude and grim at other times, the entries all intertwine to give readers a picture of life in this distant region. Library Journal The narrator's folkloric stereotypes the provincial simpletons and fools, the cuckolded husbands, the long-suffering wives resolve affectingly into distinct human beings. And the peasant vocabulary vulgar, quaint, superstitious which so perplexesthe earnest young outsider is also revealed to be cunningly subversive, an antidote to the totalitarian imposition of a "reality"irreconcilably at odds with the real thing. -- Amanda Heller The Boston Globe This is a serious, ground-breaking and finally brilliant novel by one of China's leading authors... The translation is everywhere excellent -- fluent, colloquial where appropriate, without being excessively so, learned in places, and without any hint anywhere of 'translationese'... surely destined for classic status. -- Bradley Winterton Taipei Times In its formal inventiveness, its nuanced depiction of Chinese peasant life, and its speculative explorations into the Chinese cultural psyche, this is one of the finest novels of the post-Mao era to so far make its way into English. -- Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas Review of Contemporary Fiction Worth reading...fascinating and surprisingly accessible. -- Anton Graham China Economic Review Han is a good storyteller, ingeniously leading the reader into the heart of his stories... A Dictionary of Maqiao is readable and enjoyable. -- Fatima Wu World Literature Today
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