Life, work, quilting, everything seems to have come before reading this book which I have been carrying backwards and forwards to work on the train for what seems like long enough for me to have harvested my owngarlic crop.
The book is not an easy read. For one thing everyone seems to be called Gao or Fourth Uncle/Aunt or Elder Brother. On this naming problem alone the book is more complicated to navigate than any Russian tome. I think that if I started to read this book again I would note down a new major character as they appeared. My problem was mainly with the Gaos. One Gao was all set to elope with 4th, or was it 8th Uncle’s daughter, and she confusingly referred to her prospective joint-elopee as “Elder Brother” as a mark of respect rather than any indication that they were siblings. Another Gao was flung into jail but then so were so many others, including xth Aunt and goodness knows who else. I should have understood, before I started that in China John Smith would be known as Smith John, his brother would be Smith Michael and probably at least half the population would also be Smith something or other. If each chapter hadn’t started with a few words from a ballad written to commemorate something in e.g 1987 I would have forgotten that this book is set in the 1980s. Life is so primitive and the treatment of people both by their families and by the authorities and police is barbaric. We’re not like that are we? Have things moved on so much in 20 or 30 years? Last night I saw a few minutes of a programme about police shows on TV. The part that I saw was talking about “The Sweeney” made in the mid to late 1970s and co-starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman. The programme mentioned the fantasy police series “LIfe on Mars” in which a present day policeman finds himself transported back in time and working with a detective who is close to being a clone of Reegan, the character played by John Thaw in “The Sweeney”. With hindsight the attitude and behaviour of the police in those programmes is unacceptable but at the time it was just how things were. We in the west are not so lily-white and without fault as we get on our high-horses and look down on how things are done in China. We are a very small nation and we still haven’t cleaned up our act completely so we shouldn’t be too quick to criticise others.
Reading “The Garlic Ballads” helped me to understand how rural and primitive China is, or at least still was at the end of the 1980s. Think how things have changed for us in that same space of time. Did you have a computer, an internet connection, a mobile phone in the 1980s? Now think how much of your daily life is influenced by those three things today. Because of the Olympics China has opened up. Let’s hope that that enormous country can learn from some of our mistakes.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, I still haven’t finished the book.