A Forgotten Novel : "A Leaf in the Storm"


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“A Leaf in the Storm”  by Lin Yutang

 

this strikes me as being a great book, and there are probably not more than a dozen or so novels about which I would say this. On reading the final pages alone in a carriage on the way to London, I actually found myself bursting into tears.   

      Why do I find this forgotten book, discovered by chance at the back of a cupboard in a friend’s house, so interesting and moving?

      Let us deal with the more superficial reasons first. The author, Lin Yutang, was a twentieth century Chinese man who eventually emigrated to America and wrote fluently in both English and Chinese. As a highly cultured individual who embraced Western literature and ideas while retaining deep interest in traditional Chinese art and philosophy, he was very much a man who straddled two worlds, and we have very few articulate accounts of people like this. Moreover, unlike the author of  The Three Swans, he has no particular axe to grind which makes his book, though dealing with a chapter in Chinese history if anything even more dreadful  than Mao’s Cultural  Revolution, a much more humane and inspiring book. The modernization of China had in fact been going on apace for more than fifty years before Mao ever came to power : China’s  ‘Cultural Revolution’ should, in a sense, be backdated to Sun Yat Sen’s time for it was in the early twentieth century that Western ideas and mores really began to powerfully affect the Chinese people.

            As a realistic — but not naturalistic — novel there are plenty of details about how Chinese of all classes during the mid-twentieth century period actually lived, what clothes they wore, what furniture they possessed, how they travelled  and what sort of things they ate. I was bemused, for example, to find that a favourite delicacy of the time, the equivalent to our Crisps, was dried ducks’ gizzards : in one scene the central character, Malin, takes one out of a glass jar and munches it for a good twenty minutes prior to the main meal. And I learn that both men and women commonly wore in winter, “quilted leg sheaths that were  tied around the ankles below and laced at the top, the seats cut away” (p. 105). Malin has some difficulty putting them on “because there was no trouser braid to which to tie the top strings since she wore foreign panties”. And I learn that, as late as the mid twentieth century, traditional “big-drum Storytellers” in Shanghai still managed to compete successfully with Hollywood films for the attention of the urban public. At the same time the Shanghai young Chinese women seem to have been amazingly ‘modern’, far more so, to judge by certain scenes in the novel, than their equivalents in, say, Italy during the same era.  

            For all that, I would like to think that, even if I were a contemporary Chinese man or woman, to whom many of these everyday details would be a good deal less strange, the novel would still have much the same effect on me. As a love story acted out against the backdrop of war, A Leaf in the Storm makes one think immediately of War and Peace on the one hand or Gone with the Wind on the other. Though a good deal shorter than these two epics, and marred by a slow beginning, in many ways it stands up quite well against these mammoth best-sellers.

          A Leaf in the Storm tells a highly romantic story and   could easily be turned into a tremendous Hollywood film — quite as good as Titanic  — but it is also a novel with an underlying  philosophy and message. The implicit ethic is an ethic of self-sacrifice, but not taken to a masochistic or suicidal extreme : Lao Peng even departs from the strict non-violence of traditional Buddhism by actively aiding the insurgency, and we feel that, in the circumstances, this is entirely right. The principle of self-sacrifice is something that has completely disappeared from western society, especially since the decline  and fall of Christianity, and the result is a  culture of  self-indulgence and self-seeking whose baleful results are only too obvious today. A Leaf in the Storm  is, philosophically, a strange mish-mash of Buddhist, Christian and Romantic ideas  but it is an impressive and entirely successful mixture.  Lin Yutang, the author, was brought up as a Christian but later immersed himself in Taoism and Buddhism, while his literary tastes, Chinese and European, were clearly Romantic. The Buddhist in him counters the intolerance of Christianity, the Christian in him offsets the abstractness and lack of warmth of Buddhism, and the Romantic in him makes him, at moments, sweep aside impatiently both Christian and Buddistic morality, at any rate where ‘love’ is concerned.

            A Leaf in the Storm is notable in that it presents us with a genuinely ‘good’ person, Lao Peng, who is both convincing, likeable and even interesting! Novelists and scriptwriters have serious problems with ‘good’ characters since audiences and readers, especially women, so obviously prefer violent and masterful characters like Heathcliffe or Scarlett O’Hara (without even mentioning  debased film ‘heroes’ such as James Bond and Rambo). Dostoevsky gets round this by making his good characters physically or socially disfavoured — Prince Myshkin is an epileptic and Sonia a poor prostitute. But this has always struck me as being an easy way out and is one of the reasons why Dostoevsky is markedly inferior to Tolstoy as a writer and thinker, at any rate the Tolstoy of War and Peace. As for Dickens, his ‘good’ characters, with one or two exceptions, tend to be either implausible or silly, or both at once. But Lao Peng, the unassuming  middle aged Buddhist comes over as someone one would actually like to meet — whereas I am not sure I would have enjoyed meeting Gandhi.

 

         “Beijing did not know Lao Peng. He had done nothing extraordinary. His outward life had been one failure after another. But ever since he [Poya] came to know him, the man had fascinated him. It seemed unbelievable that in this bare room lived a great man in obscurity, the only perfectly happy man that he knew, without wife and children. He was a man ‘without fear and without worry’ — Confucius’ definition of the gentleman.”

 

            A Leaf in the Storm also has some tremendous minor characters straight out of Chinese folklore (though for all that perfectly credible) such as Grandma Chao, an innocuous looking, illiterate Chinese woman of sixty, who runs single-handed a vast guerrilla network, or, at the opposite extreme, the swashbuckling, boastful guerrilla leader known as Rattlesnake.

            Unlike most serious western novels, there are no villains in A Leaf in the Storm — Lin Yutang does not need them — except, of course, the faceless and ubiquitous Japanese invaders. Sex is present but kept in its rightful place and Lin Yutang thankfully spares us the tiresome descriptions of intercourse that a contemporary novelist, even more so a film director, would consider de rigueur.      

            Many great novels have disappointing endings and I for one wish Tolstoy  had never written the bathotic Epilogue to War and Peace where the two main characters who survive the war, Natasha and Pierre, turn into a tiresome middle-aged couple : it seems hardly worth having gone through so much to end up with so little.  

            A Leaf in the Storm ends in a surprising and thoroughly satisfying manner, neither tragic nor happy exactly, and the great thing is that we feel that each of the three main characters really has learned something from his or her experiences and is a better person at the end than he or she was at the beginning (even Lao Peng). Of all novels known to me, A Leaf in the Storm strikes me as the one of which Schopenhauer would have most approved. The main characters pass from the turbulence that comes from subjection to the World as Will to the serenity, inevitably mixed with sadness, that comes from renunciation of the individual Will and everything that goes with it.

 

“ ‘What about you?’ she asked feebly.

‘I shall carry on my refugee work. Try to remember the vision you had at the Chenghow hotel. Courage, Tanni. After this, both you and I must try to find a higher happiness. (…) Lose yourself in work for others and you will find that greater happiness which is above the sorrows of our individual lives.’”  

                                 A Leaf in the Storm, p. 390

 

             


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1 Comment

  1. Naomi said,

    February 9, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    I chanced upon this blog which has been a sadness and a joy since this morning. The day before yesterday my father, who had a love of good literature, died. He left me a book, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a beautifully illustrated hardback edition. He told me that he had been given it by a man named Gordon Pocock with whom he had worked for some years. My father was interested to know if Mr Pocock was still alive and, though they had stopped working together in the early ’70’s, he recalled that Mr Pocock was writing a book which I think may have been about Boileau. It strikes me through reading your blog that you might just possibly know of Mr Pocock or where I might find him. It matters little of course to my father but I should like to tell him that the book was so much treasured that my father not only read it quite literally in the few hours before his death but that he thought to give it to me. I intend to read from it at the funeral (providing I make it through the text in sufficient time to find a suitable passage for the occasion). You may wish to comment on this, I would be very grateful. In any case, as I say, your blog is a joy to read. Naomi


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