Monday, November 11, 2013

A House Divided by Pearl S. Buck

An epic of China’s transformation
Pearl S. Buck’s 1935 novel A House Divided is the concluding installment of her House of Earth trilogy. The first volume, The Good Earth, told the story of the farmer Wang Lung. The second, Sons, primarily focused on his son Wang the Tiger, who rose to power as a warlord. A House Divided is the story of the Tiger’s son Wang Yuan. Yuan has more in common with his grandfather than his father and would prefer a life cultivating the land to one following in the military footsteps of the Tiger. The more the Tiger tries to bend Yuan to his will, the more Yuan desires to free himself from his father’s influence. As he seeks his own path in life, matters are complicated by the tumultuous events of Chinese history. Revolution sweeps the land, and with it come great changes. The older generations cling to the values and customs of the Qing Dynasty, while the younger generations embrace modern ideas from foreign lands. Yuan finds himself an outsider in either camp, caught somewhere in between China’s past and future. He struggles with the simultaneous feelings of pride and shame that he feels for his mother country. Though he venerates the history and culture of his homeland, he awakens to the plight of the poor and develops a distaste for the antiquated customs which restrict freedom and progress. Unlike most of his generation, however, he realizes the revolution is no panacea for his nation’s ills.

The human drama of Yuan’s journey of self-discovery is undeniably moving. There were few if any passages in which I was not enthralled by Buck’s story. Her style is unquestionably romantic, but it’s an understated romanticism. Sweeping, epic events occur, millions of lives are affected, yet all of this takes place on the periphery while Buck focuses on the joys and hardships of this one man and his family. In any historical novel, there’s always a delicate balancing act between the big picture and the personal stories, and few strike that balance as well as Buck. Her prose is a joy to read, combining the best qualities of naturalism and modernism. Every sentence is expertly crafted, yet without a trace of self-indulgence.

One annoying convention that Buck sticks to throughout the book (and throughout the trilogy, for that matter), is a refusal to use proper nouns other than the character’s names. Thus, places are designated by descriptive phrases like “a coastal city” or “the new capital,” while the actual names of Shanghai and Beijing are never mentioned. The word “revolution” occurs throughout the book, but never the words “republic” or “communism.” Yuan meets a general who may be intended to represent an actual historical figure (Chiang Kai-shek, perhaps?), but if so it’s never clarified. At one point, even November is referred to as “the eleventh month.” I imagine the intention behind all this deliberate ambiguity was to make the story more universal and thus more palatable to an American audience with little knowledge of Chinese history. This strategy worked for The Good Earth, but it’s not as successful here. Readers with an interest in Chinese history can’t help but think this would have made a great historical novel if only Buck hadn’t chosen to leave out all the details. The period between the Qing Dynasty and the People's Republic is a confusing time, and Buck doesn’t do Westerners any favors by refusing to inform them of even which revolution she's writing about.

Nevertheless, those who have read The Good Earth and are wondering if they should read the entire trilogy need wonder no more. This book answers that question with a resounding yes. Though Sons is not quite up to the same standard, A House Divided is definitely in the same league as The Good Earth and offers ample evidence that Buck did indeed deserve her Nobel Prize.

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