PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 May, 2009, 12:00am

by Wang Gang
Viking, HK$208

As with people, readers find certain connections with certain books, but not so with others. I found myself laughing, then suddenly crying, while reading Wang Gang's autobiographical novel, English, a Cultural Revolution tale with a refreshing twist.

It's a coming-of-age story set against that turbulent backdrop and narrated by an ethnic Han boy named Love Liu from Urumqi. Although Urumqi is the largest city and the capital of Xinjiang, the narrator considers it a backwater. He often wonders what life is like beyond the Tianshan Mountains.

As the book opens, Liu, 12, is fascinated by his sophisticated, cologne-wearing English teacher, Second Prize Wang from Shanghai. While his mother busies herself with designing an air raid shelter and his father is away working on developing a hydrogen bomb, the boy throws himself into learning English, forming an unlikely friendship with his diligent teacher. 'Second Prize Wang was like a missionary in those days, only his religion was English,' he says.

The key metaphor of the book, a Chinese-English dictionary, supposedly the only one in town, becomes the object of Liu's desire because it represents a new world he longs to reach. He even tries to steal the dictionary - breaking his leg in the process. Among the unfamiliar words he discovers are 'mercy' and 'compassion', baffling amid the cruel reality around him.

English doesn't focus on the brutality or violence; nor does it dwell on the suffering of the innocent at the hands of the bad, as many Cultural Revolution titles do, notably Wild Swans and Life and Death in Shanghai. Contrary to western perceptions, many victims were also perpetrators. Wang, an established novelist and screenwriter, argues that just about everyone was implicated. The novel is partly the author's reflection on the mainland's shameful recent past, which still resonates.

The characters, many based on real people, are well drawn and conflicted, from Liu's father, arrogant yet weak in front of authority, to the beautiful Ahjitai, a teacher troubled by her identity as a 'double-turner', Urumqi slang for half-Han, half-Uygur. She is the only non-Han character, although the novel is set in Xinjiang. Then, as now, the Uygur and Han lived segregated lives.

Despite the setting and the narrator's flawed ambition, there is something uplifting about the book: it shows that human dignity exists even during the darkest days.

Lijia Zhang is the author of Socialism is Great!