Don Quixote: A Subei Boyhood
In Bi Feiyu’s first work of narrative non-fiction, he recounts his childhood growing up in a rural village in Jiangsu province in the 1960s and 70s, evoking in vivid detail a particular time and place in China’s turbulent past. This is not a conventional memoir, however, but is told through a series of essays or vignettes, structured around broad themes such as ‘objects’, ‘animals’, ‘clothing’ and ‘landscapes’. Each of these memories becomes a touchstone for the author to dwell not only on his family, but also the particular social and historical context in which they lived. The fact that the Cultural Revolution was taking place at this time is evident, but not overstated: Bi Feiyu acknowledges that it was a difficult time to grow up and an impossible period in which to be an artist, but he shows no anger or resentment about the suffering and deprivation the Chinese people experienced and indeed relates them with a dry humour.
The fact that Bi Feiyu is best known as a novelist is not forgotten here, for this masterful collection of memories is what informs his writing above all. The text is also strewn with literary references, quoting Chinese writers such as Eileen Chang and Mo Yan, as well as Flaubert and Jack London, among others. To read this book is to flip through an album of exquisite pictures of a bygone childhood. The photographs might be faded or dog-eared, but each still tells a story, the reflection of a different era.