Book Review: To Live
To Live (活著)
By: Yu Hua (余華)
Yu Hua's "To Live" is one of those tragic stories in which life is one loss after another. Most lives are a combination of ups and downs, but in a novel like "To Live," the moments of idyllic happiness are just preludes to another loss. Such a consistently tragic story runs the risk of sounding hackish, but there is a case to be made for this kind of story; After all, what life doesn't end in death? What happiness doesn't end? Your ability to stomach a whole novel of tragedy will determine whether or not this is a book for you.
“To Live” is the story of Fugui. As an old man, Fugui tells his life story to the narrator of the novel. Fugui's story begins when he was the spoiled son of a rich land-holding family. He gambles away his family's land and home, leaving him a pauper. The rest of the book follows the life of Fugui as a peasant (and as an unwilling soldier), which includes the death of all his past and future family members.
This novel was made into an award-winning film by director Zhang Yimou. Where the film departs from the novel, it is usually for the best. Highlighting some of these differences will indicate some of the flaws of the novel.
The first difference is Fugui's personality. In the beginning of the film, Fugui is obsessed with gambling and is cold toward his wife. In the novel, the early-period Fugui is plain evil. His vice is not limited to gambling; Fugui tells us that frequenting brothels goes hand in hand with gambling. On his way back home from the brothel, he rides on the back of a prostitute, and makes a trip by his father-in-law's shop just to humiliate him. When his wife comes to stop him from gambling, he slaps her twice and has her dragged away. When he loses his family fortune, Fugui is not worthy of sympathy. After that loss, the Fugui of the novel undergoes a miraculous change. He may not be a model father, but we see not a touch of the selfishness of the early Fugui. It is as if Fugui's vices were a product of his family's wealth, and not something intrinsic in his personality. Fugui's rapid transformation makes the first part of the novel ring false, a dramatic story tacked onto the life of a peasant. This transformation seems too amazing, not just in his personality, but also in how he adapts to becoming a peasant. In the film, after losing the fortune, Fugui makes money by performing shadow puppets plays. This is visually interesting, and is more believable than his new profession in the book, in which the spoiled young master apparently had no problems in the transition to being a farmer.
The second major change in the film is in the personality of Jiazhen, Fugui's wife. Jiazhen in the novel is persistently supportive of Fugui. She is a thoroughly flat character who does not really come to life until two-thirds of the way through the book. In the film, Jiazhen, played by Gong Li, is a stronger character. Some of Fugui's lines in the book are given to Jiazhen. We also see a playful side of her that is never shown in the book, when she and her son play a trick on Fugui, substituting vinegar and pepper sauce for his tea.
The greatest difference between the book and movie is simply that the movie is much shorter. The movie ends before Fugui has lost everyone, thereby leaving the audience with hope for Fugui. I don’t think this would have been a better film if it had been an hour longer.
Another difference between film and book is that political movements are more visible in the film. This might make the film more interesting, especially for foreign viewers, but this change does not reflect a flaw in the original story, it is just a change in focus. For example, in the movie, Fugui’s daughter Fengxia dies as a direct result of the Cultural Revolution. Some critics see this as a sharp criticism of communism, and indeed, the film was banned in China. However, criticism of the Cultural Revolution does not necessarily mean criticism of the modern communist party. In my opinion, the book makes a harsher criticism in its description of the death of Fugui's son Youqing, which comes as a result of literally bloodsucking toadyism. Doctors draw Youqing's blood to aid the wife of a county official, drawing his blood until he collapses. This criticism is not linked to any specific political movement; it's not even necessarily linked to communism.
I've focused on the flaws in the story, but there is plenty to praise in the book. One of the best parts of the book is the characterization of Youqing and his relationship with his father, Fugui. We see Youqing pursuing his own interests, namely goats and running. Fugui uses his primitive methods to guide his son to more practical things, struggling to be a good father when he is mostly clueless as to how fathers should act. In this context, the death of Youqing is the most painful death in the book. The well-portrayed father-son relationship extends to Fugui's grandson, Kugen. In one amusing passage, Fugui has the blacksmith make a child-size sickle for the young Kugen. However, like all the relationships in the book, it comes to an end by death, this time by choking on food, leaving this reader also a little fed up by the relentless tragedy.