Book review: From the Dragon's Mouth, by Ana Fuentes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 5:19pm

From the Dragon's Mouth: Ten True Stories That Unveil the Real China

by Ana Fuentes

C.A. Press

We've all heard the expression "straight from the horse's mouth". Throw in a rather fiercer beast and the definition is borne out by From the Dragon's Mouth.

Journalist Ana Fuentes' illuminating account of the lives of 10 ordinary people in China highlights various sides to the country - alluring, dark, provocative, unjust, invigorating. From stuck-up rich kid to secret prostitute, tortured dissident to self-made millionaire, From the Dragon's Mouth recounts the stories of everyday people from all walks of life - stories that will make you cringe, cry and curse.

So vivid is Fuentes' writing that we share the joy, pain and struggles of the characters we encounter. It feels as though the stories are, indeed, coming directly from their subjects. And this seems to be true even in translation - the Spanish version of the book has been a bestseller on Amazon.

Fuentes deftly captures the sense of a unique voice in every story. Each one is the perfect length for hard-hitting anecdotal impact and will stay with you: these are fascinating tales that you will want to retell. And yet for all the directness and simple storytelling, we encounter deeply textured realities. Fuentes lays bare what it means to be human in an ever-changing realm of challenges and triumphs.

Through her lucid prose, Fuentes exposes the barriers and opportunities confronting Chinese citizens today. She provides insight into China's history, politics, culture, economy and development - both for good and ill - without hyperbole or bias, instead letting the stories speak for themselves. Capturing the depth and range of such a vast country's demographic diversity may seem impossible, but Fuentes, who spent four years getting to know China, blends together each strand in its national story with ease.

While each story can be read in isolation, together they demonstrate just how heterogeneous yet interconnected our world is. The book offers a microcosm of China today - fraught with tensions, deeply rooted in tradition and culture, and modernising at a staggering pace.

Behind the detailed, intimate personal narratives lurks the cold, hard and sometimes terrifying reality of Asia's rising superpower. Fuentes' observations, both acute and sub-textual, combine with more explicitly factual data to put China under the microscope and reveal a starkly realistic picture of the nation today. She also offers plenty of explanatory background and context within a comprehensive set of references at the back.

There is even room for humour, injected throughout in tales such as the opener, which reveals the candidness of Chinese people: in a cab that smelled foul when Fuentes stepped into it, she is not-so-politely told that her perfume stinks, as the cabbie rolls down a window. Yet coupled with this lack of tact and overt openness is, of course, a culture of "face" and secrecy. Nothing is what it seems. It takes time to find the truth in China, but Fuentes uncovers it, delving into the emotions beneath surface smiles and idle insults.

The book's only flaw is that some of the stories perhaps warrant more of a conclusion. That said, people's lives - their stories and experiences - cannot be neatly rounded off, loose ends cannot be tied up - especially in China, where the ground is shifting so rapidly.

Fuentes strikes the perfect tone in recounting these personal tales - straightforward, unpretentious, but characterful. In her exploration of China, she provides a well-rounded picture of the country and its citizens' everyday realities.

This is a memorable book that gets to the heart of matters in modern China via tales straight from the mouths of its people.