Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck

Life under occupation
Of all the American writers who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pearl S. Buck probably gets the least amount of credit. You rarely see her name pop up on any “100 best” lists these days. There is a romanticism and an optimism in her books that was already falling out of fashion with critics back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Those with modernist leanings or cynical outlooks are unlikely to appreciate the unpretentious beauty of her works, but those who aren’t averse to good old-fashioned storytelling with just a hint of hopeful preachiness will find her novels quite moving. I can honestly say I’ve never read a bad book with her name on it. Nevertheless, Dragon Seed, originally published in 1942, is not her best work, and though I did enjoy it I must confess at times it left me scratching my head.

Buck is best-known for her 1931 novel The Good Earth. To those who have read that great work, the opening chapters of Dragon Seed feel like familiar territory. The protagonist of both novels is a farmer who loves his land, works hard to till the soil, and does his best to secure a promising future for his children. The similarities end there, however. Ling Tan and his family live in a rural village outside of Nanjing, a.k.a. Nanking. When the region is invaded by the Japanese, they must adjust to the horrors of life under the subjugation of a hostile enemy. As is typical of Buck’s work, she never uses the words “China” or “Japan,” and deliberately avoids historical specifics in an attempt to tell a story that is more universally human. While that’s a commendable intention, and she almost pulls it off, the lack of detail is slightly annoying. Dragon Seed is a fictional account of the 1937 event known as the Rape of Nanking. The atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers are an integral part of Buck’s narrative, in particular the indiscriminate rape and murder of Chinese women. The story, told from the perspective of the victims, is understandably one-sided, as are many literary works about World War II. The invaders are all soulless monsters —which may be justified given the historical facts—yet to Buck’s credit, the Chinese are not all saints and martyrs either. Some become collaborators; others form a resistance movement that drives them to commit brutal acts of their own. Ling Tan and his family are altered irrevocably by the tragedy and brutality of war. Buck tells the story with a gritty realism that is unsparingly frank and heartbreakingly powerful.

At about the three-quarter mark, however, a new character is introduced that is just too perfect to be true. The novel changes horses mid-stream and trods down a much more romanticized path, becoming something that calls to mind the golden age of the television miniseries. The purpose of this change of tone is for Buck to inject some hope into the proceedings, but the book’s final act is so incongruous with all that came before that the effect is truly jarring. This is not a bad book by any means, especially if you’re open to a good romantic epic, but in many ways Dragon Seed feels like two separate stories, one dark and one rosy, with a light switch turned on in between.

As always, Buck’s prose is a joy to read. She constructs sentences with a unique syntax that calls to mind the unusual word ordering of Mandarin Chinese. The result is both poetically beautiful and refreshingly forthright. She is a brilliant observer of human nature and capable of creating scenes of great emotional resonance. Though Dragon Seed may not quite measure up to The Good Earth trilogy, it never lets you forget that Buck is a fantastic writer.

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