Red Poppies is a lyrical and thrilling novel about the downfall of Tibet as seen through the eyes of the self-described idiot son of a Tibetan chieftain. That’s what it says on the back of the book, anyway. In some ways, it was more than that. In other ways, it was less. In yet other ways, it was neither more nor less than that but rather exactly that. Let me break it down.
Lyrical? Yes, pretty much. At first I found the writing style of the book rather off-putting. I wasn’t sure whether it was an issue with the writing or the translation (Red Poppies was originally written in Chinese), but I definitely took issue with it. Over time, however, it won me over. The style feels very soft and smoky, a caress of language similar in tempo to the blunt staccato of your Ernest Hemingway sort but infinitely removed in temperament. It feels almost as though each line could be part of a haiku. Simple declarative sentences abut misty description and earnest rumination. It’s an odd style, but the more I read the more I found it appropriate for the material.
Hm… The downfall of Tibet… Yeah, that sounds about right. For the first half or so of this book I was totally lost as to the time period in which this story took place. The reader, along with the characters, drifts aimlessly through seas of time in a timeless place. This is Tibet as it has always been and shall always be. As the story goes on, however, the world outside begins increasingly to intrude. Tibet changes, it is swallowed by modernity. Time invades the timeless kingdom. The magical savagery of the warlords and chieftains gives way to the savagery of government and machinery. I was very impressed at how the book was able to simultaneously stir up nostalgia for a vanishing age and look boldly towards the future with some measure of hope and optimism. That is, I think, a singular feat which not many could achieve so masterfully as does Alai in this novel.
That said, I wasn’t completely taken with the book. For long stretches the plot meanders, whole chunks are given over to voracious amorous pursuits and purposeless violence. The threads of the plot feel both too loosely intertwined and too conveniently tied up. Several of the characters – most of them, actually now that I think of it – seem constructed to serve the story rather than being naturally felt, though I suppose in some ways that is an aspect of the style, which feels rather like a fable at times.
Those caveats aside, I found this to be a remarkable and accomplished novel. I tore through it at quite a furious pace, which is usually a good sign that it’s a quality work. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Red Poppies is a masterpiece, but it does most assuredly feel like the work of a master. I recommend it.