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Long trek through China's upheaval disappoints

In this vast novel, which starts shortly before Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, a powerful general has a son with his wife and another with his mistress. Their Cain and Abel lives come to reflect China's complex evolution during and after the upheaval.

Author Da Chen, a memoirist whose own life mirrors in various ways those of his characters, should be applauded for taking on so ambitious a subject. The social changes in China spurred by Mao's quest to regain power over his rivals are still not as widely understood in the West as they should be, especially since China has become a major player in recent years on the global economic, cultural, and ideological stage.

Unfortunately, this novel is disappointing as fiction. It is at best a political epic, preaching the individualistic virtues of free-market capitalism and grass-roots democracy in ways so devoid of artistry as to make Ayn Rand read like Alice Munro.

The tale, which spans nearly four decades, comprises 67 chapters, most of them oscillating first-person narratives told by Tan and Shento, brothers the author may have intended to be opposed thematically as well as structurally but who are indistinguishable in voice. They are also repulsive intellectually, emotionally, ethically, even sexually, incessantly trumpeting their exploits. As egotists lacking dimension and depth, they are mere caricatures.

Tan, the wife's son, enjoys a privileged upbringing, becoming a rich entrepreneur and pro-democracy folk hero to the rebellious masses. Shento, the mistress's son, suffers an outcast's life yet rises to military and party power as well as wealth. This predictable plot and mechanical structure are eased a bit by 10 first-person chapters told by Sumi, a captivating woman loved and ultimately lost by the brothers. But despite these interludes, the anesthetic effect of the novel persists, exacerbated by two chapters, inexplicably told in the third person, about two minor characters.

A poor resolution to the story, drawn out over the final 33 chapters -- nearly half the novel -- and involving a series of implausible, spasmodic plot developments as well as a sudden 12-year leap ahead in the last three chapters, suggests the author was not sure how to end the novel, so he just stopped. But the novel's greatest weakness is the writing itself, a flat, stilted, and clichéd narrative style evident from first page to last.

``Time seemed to flow by like water in a stream," Shento says, while training on a remote island to be a special agent with Jian Dao, a top-secret Chinese intelligence unit. ``Summer soon was gone and autumn came with its coolness in the air. My body had hardened with the stringent daily exertion, and my heart regained the lightness that I had not felt since parting from my beloved Sumi. The isolation from my past, from the rest of the world, seemed to cure me."

Too bad a cure could not have been found for this novel.

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